Upon hearing about the death of Ken Russell I knew the world had lost a prolific director. However, I also know that I had yet to see any of this director's films. Sure, I had seen clips from The Music Lovers or Crimes of Passion here and there, but I had never seen one of his films from beginning to end. I decided upon his 1980 offering Altered States as my introduction to the director and from what I can gather it was quite a introduction. The trippy, fantastical sensory overload that is Altered States is not only a great movie, but also an harbinger for the special effects heavy filmmaking that would follow with directors like David Cronenberg and Samuel Fuller. Furthermore, Altered States is a treat for those who love directors who dabble into the experimental, while Altered States is no 2001: A Space Odyssey it is certainly a thought out and prolific study on mind alteration and where such activities may lead the human race, which in this case is not necessarily forward. Three parts drama and a part horror this is a eighties movie is ever one existed, but unlike its contemporaries the film is quite enjoyable and a great way to introduce Ken Russell to your film palette.
Altered States concerns itself with the respected and recognized professor Edward Jessup (William Hurt) whose unconventional studies of schizophrenia have led him to draw connections to religious experiences and their altered states of consciousness. He devoutly believes that through sensory deprivation and hallucinatory drugs he can locate these experiences and map them with technology. However, as viewers realize through his relationship with a woman named Emily (Blair Brown) his desires and own mental stability are questionable and he in fact possesses signs of schizophrenia himself. Driven to discover the possibilities Edward partakes in a Ayahausca Ceremony which involves the consumption of liquefied mushrooms. During his participation, Edward goes on a hallucinatory trip that causes him to blackout and inexplicably kill a lizard. Confused and intrigued, Edward brings a sample of the drug back to his friends and Harvard and begins testing the drug while also undergoing sensory deprivation. Edward's friends cautiously agree to help him in his quest and supervise him during his use of the drug, which leads Edward to blackout for nearly four hours. It is during this blackout that Edward talks of regressing to primitive man and eating goats' blood which causes his friends to end the experiment early, only to discover that the drug has led to physical alterations in Edward's body that have made him more apelike. Dismissing the phenomena, Emily and Edward's colleagues leave Edward to himself. The drug however, continues to react to Edward's body and he regresses yet again to a primitive state and goes on a killing spree through the city zoo. After a few more studies, it is agreed that Edward should no longer engage in the use of the drug and remains close to his wife Emily. After one last bout with a regression and the near fatal loss of Edward, he and Emily realize their love is far grander than the effects of the drug and lay together facing reality free of any chemical interference.
The plot for this film seems rather disjointed and hardly evident of a movie about addiction, yet in an hour and a half Ken Russell manages to make a far more convincing case on the effects of addiction on relationships than Aronofsky could ever have meant with Requiem for a Dream...and this is coming from somebody who absolutely loves the work of Darren Aronofsky. What separates Altered States from other movies on this subject is both its honest portrayal of addiction and well as its simplistic and subtle study of its affects on relationships. I know this may seem illogical given that the film involves a man apparently turning into a monkey for indefinite amounts of time. However, where Russell does get the problem right is through the distancing and decaying of a relationship. At no time, except perhaps the very end, does the film rely on over the top events or degradation to get to the point. It is obvious that Edward has drug and mental issues, but at no time do these drug issues cause him to say...lose his arm or degrade himself sexually. What his mental issues do cause are a near loss of his family and friends. While it could be read as a larger study on the physicality of altered realities, I would argue that these are hallucinations meant to allow the viewer to engage with Edward's mental state and nothing more. It is a film about the tragedies of addiction and how love can overcome such problems, and it is done without the use of classical music or making the viewers outwardly condemn the characters.
Watch this movie; I can imagine you will glean an entirely different meaning from the rather complex film. I would say get the Bluray, but only a DVD copy exists so that will have to do. Either way purchase it, because it is a necessary introduction to Ken Russell.