*. I’m not sure why, but I’ve always had a special place in my heart for Altered States. I remember when I was in grade school I wrote an SF short story making use of the isolation tank I’d seen in the commercials (I didn’t see the movie on its initial release). Something about that image got to me.
*. But I don’t think it’s just a quirky, personal response. I honestly think it’s a good movie, and one that holds up remarkably well.
*. I say “remarkably” for a couple of reasons. In the first place, it’s a movie that was just a bit behind its own time already in 1980, with Edward Jessup (William Hurt in his big screen debut) tripping into altered states of consciousness being very much a product of the drug culture of the previous decade. John Lilly or Timothy Leary (possible models for Jessup) and the psychedelic Star Gate from 2001 were relics of the ’60s. Actually, Ken Russell’s career seemed pretty much over by 1980 as well. And yet it’s a movie that seems fresher than ever today.
*. The other reason I find it remarkable it’s so good has to do with its troubled production. Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky (whose own novel he was adapting) withdrew from the project after fighting with Russell, and even went so far as to have his full name removed from the credits (he appears as Sidney Aaron). Apparently he was upset his lines weren’t being delivered with the respect they deserved, which is a novice screenwriter’s complaint. It’s also unfair, as almost every review of the film praised Russell for having the dialogue delivered quickly or with overlapping voices to make it seem more natural (or cover up how bad it was). Danny Peary, no fan of Russell, is scathing on this point: “It’s more than likely [Chayefsky] came out publicly against Russell because he realized early on that that no faithful adaptation of his book could result in a good film. He needed a scapegoat in order to keep his own reputation intact. But if you don’t like Altered States, blame Chayefsky.”
*. Whoever’s side you take, these disputes usually bode ill. Pauline Kael thought Altered States “an aggressively silly head-horror movie” primarily for being “the misalliance of two wildly different hyperbolic talents.” “Creative conflict” is mostly a myth. When people who are supposed to be working together on set don’t get along bad things usually happen. But not here. Also, movies this far-fetched and messy rarely come together, but that’s again not what happened. Altered States is visually chaotic, but it doesn’t fall apart.
*. Take Jessup’s visions. They are all over the map in terms of their content, but they still manage to have a weird coherence. The thing is, since they represent a dive into the collective unconscious and prehistory of the species, literally anything can be found down there. As with dreams, if they made sense they wouldn’t make sense.
*. I think there’s a point here also that bears on a criticism I’ve heard made of Jessup’s transformation. Instead of having the lead actor turn into the Primal Man, as is traditional in transformation scenes in Jekyll-and-Hyde and Werewolf movies, they have an entirely different person playing the “monster.” In this case it’s Miguel Godreau, a much smaller man than Hurt. This is hard to figure just on a physical level (how does Jessup shrink so much?), but I don’t have any problem with it. The thing is, the Primal Man doesn’t represent Jessup’s Mr. Hyde, or unleashed id. He is the physical embodiment of our common genetic ancestry. He is us. Of course you could then say that homo sapiens, or even “life” itself, has no genetic memory of the Big Bang or the beginning of the universe either, but that would be examining what is a crazy premise anyway too carefully.
*. What I do think you can criticize the movie for is the ending, which is both incredibly abrupt and overly sentimental. To have come so far only to be told that love conquers all is disappointing. And it’s not even that believable, since Jessup has been presented as such a self-centered jerk throughout the movie, his final transformation registers as his least likely yet.
*. The score was by John Corigliano and I find it both ahead of its time and very effective. The effects were underbudgeted, but still look good to me. Those bladders under the skin work every time, and while nothing dates faster than CGI, the hallway scene here holds up a lot better than similar scenes in more recent films.
*. One thing I don’t think the film gets enough credit for is how scary it is. Well, really there’s only the one scary sequence, when the Primal Man gets loose in the building’s basement. But I remember that part of the movie scaring the heck out of me the first time I saw it and I thought it worked just as well today. There’s always something especially frightening about a face suddenly appearing in a window you’re looking through. Something about it being extremely close, but with an invisible barrier between us and the danger. That gets me every time.
*. I’m glad this one has held on with a cult following, though I don’t know how popular it is today. I think it’s really very well done. Everyone in the cast works well (Blair Brown as the love interest, and Bob Balaban and Charles Haid as the concerned friends), the music and sound are top drawer, the effects are always interesting, Russell’s direction is imaginative and under control (I love how he works the hallway-as-birth canal motif), and the story is both bizarre and involving. Yes, it’s a movie that for whatever reason I’ve always felt a personal connection to, but it’s also one I don’t hesitate to recommend to friends. You can certainly call it silly, but it’s a good movie that’s lasted forty years now. And it may last even longer.