Horror Film Review: Altered States (dir by Ken Russell)

You gotta watch out when it comes to those sensory deprivation tanks.  They may look like fun and it might seem like a pleasant idea to spend a while floating in and out of a state of consciousness but those tanks will mess you up.  Especially if you’ve got unresolved issues with your family and religion.

Also, if you’re going to go to Mexico to try a powerful hallucinogenic, make sure you’re not appearing in a Ken Russell film because again, those drugs will mess you up.  It’s like you’ll close your eyes and, when you reopen them, you’ll be in an 80s music video or something.

Now, to be honest, Altered States came out in 1980 so it’s a bit unfair to complain that it looks like a music video from the 80s or, for that matter, the 90s.  Instead, it’s more fair to say that a lot of the music videos from those two decades looked like Altered States.  That shouldn’t be particularly surprising since this film was directed by Ken Russell and Russell was a director who specialized in combining music with wild imagery.

Altered States may have been directed by Ken Russell but it was written by Paddy Chayefsky.  Chayefsky, of course, is best known for writing the script for Network.  (He also wrote the script for the Oscar-winning film, Marty.)  Chayefsky is one of those writers who is always cited as an inspiration by writers who are trying justify being heavy-handed.  For instance, when Aaron Sorkin was criticized for both Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip and The Newsroom, his supporters started talking about how he was just carrying on the proud tradition of Paddy Chayefsky.  In his autobiography, A British Picture, Ken Russell portrays Chayefsky as being a pompous control freak who refused to allow any changes to his dialogue-heavy script.  Russell responded by directing his actors to speak the dialogue as quickly as possible, rendering much of it incoherent.  In a few scenes, he even specifically had the actors eating so that their mouths would be full as they spoke.  Chayefsky was not amused and eventually demanded to be credited under his real name, Sidney Aaron.

As for the film itself, it tells the story of Dr. Eddie Jessup (William Hurt, in his film debut), who is convinced that he can cure schizophrenia by exploring states of altered consciousness.  As mentioned above, this leads to him floating in a tank and taking hallucinogenics in Mexico.  Somehow, this leads to him turning briefly into a caveman and then into some sort of primordial energy creature.  His wife (Blair Brown) is not happy that Eddie appears to be determined to reverse evolution and return to mankind’s original form.  For that matter, Eddie’s bearded colleagues (Charles Haid and Bob Balaban) all think that he’s playing a dangerous game as well.  Eddie’s daughter (Drew Barrymore, making her film debut) isn’t particularly concerned but that’s just because she’s like five and probably thinks it would be fun to have a primordial energy monster to play with.  Anyway, it all becomes a question of whether or not all questions need to be answered and whether love can defeat science.

Anyway, this is a deeply silly movie but it’s also kind of compelling, mostly because the uneasy mix of Chayefsky’s pompous, serious-as-Hell script and Ken Russell’s aggressive and semi-satiric directorial style.  Chayefsky obviously meant for the story to be taken very seriously whereas Russell takes it not seriously at all.  Though Chayesfky and Russell ended up hating each other, Russell keeps the film from becoming the cinematic equivalent of Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s twitter account.  Chayefsky’s greatest objection was that Russell directed the actors to not only speak quickly but to also speak over each other but this actually works to the film’s advantage.  Eddie and his colleagues are young, arrogant, and determined to make their mark.  Of course, they’re going to speak quickly.  They’re excited and there’s no time to lose.  The film’s best moments are the early ones, where it’s hard not to get swept up in Eddie’s enthusiasm.  Of course, once Eddie turns into a caveman, it pretty much becomes impossible to take anything that follows seriously.

For all the talk about the origins of mankind and whether or not love can save the day, the main appeal of this film is to watch William Hurt totally freak out.  Jessup’s hallucinations allow Russell to do what he did best and they’re the highlight of the film.  Despite Chayefsky’s ambitions, you don’t watch this film for the science.  You watch it for the seven-eyed ram and the scenes of Eddie walking into a mushroom cloud.  Ken Russell was smart enough to know that audiences would take one look at William Hurt, with his WASP bearing, and totally want to see just how fucked up Eddie Jessup actually was.  On that front, Russell totally delivers.

This film is a mess but at least it’s a Ken Russell mess.


4 Shots From 4 Films: Child’s Play, Faceless, The Lair of the White Worm, Night of the Demons

4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking!

This October, we’re using 4 Shots From 4 Films to look at some of the best years that horror has to offer!

4 Shots From 4 1988 Horror Films

Child’s Play (1988, dir by Tom Holland)

Faceless (1988, dir by Jess Franco)

The Lair Of The White Worm (1988, dir by Ken Russell)

Night of the Demons (1988, dir by Kevin Tenney)

Rockin’ in the Film World #18: The Who’s TOMMY (Columbia 1975)

cracked rear viewer

Before MTV ever hit the airwaves, there was TOMMY, Ken Russell’s stylized cinematic vision of The Who’s 1969 ‘rock opera’. It was a match made in heaven, teaming Britain’s Wild Man of Cinema with the anarchic rock and roll of Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle, and Keith Moon (not to mention England’s own enfant terrible,Oliver Reed ). Russell both captures the spirit of Townsend’s hard rock opus and expands on it visually with an all-out assault-on-the-senses musical featuring an all-star cast that includes an Oscar-nominated performance by Ann-Margret as the mother of “that deaf, dumb, and blind kid” who “sure plays a mean pinball”!

The Who’s original album cover

Townshend, the group’s primary songwriter, had been experimenting with long-form rock’n’roll since the beginning, notably the nine minute suite “A Quick One While He’s Away” on their second album A QUICK ONE (retitled in America HAPPY JACK). TOMMY was…

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4 Shots From 4 Films: Savage Messiah, All The Vermeers in New York, The Stendhal Syndrome, Mr. Turner

4 Shots from 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots from 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking!

In honor of Slow Art Day, here are…

4 Shots From 4 Films

Savage Messiah (1972, dir by Ken Russell)

All The Vermeers in New York (1990, dir by Jon Jost)

The Stendhal Syndrome (1996, dir by Dario Argento)

Mr. Turner (2014, dir by Mike Leigh)

4 Shots From 4 Films: Special Jack Nance Edition (Eraserhead, Twin Peaks — The Pilot, Whore, Meatballs 4)

In honor of the late, great Jack Nance’s birthday, here are…

4 Shots From 4 Films

Eraserhead (1977, directed by David Lynch)

Twin Peaks 1.1 “The Pilot” (1990, directed by David Lynch)

Whore (1991, directed by Ken Russell)

Meatballs 4 (1992, directed by Bob Logan)

A Movie A Day #93: Whore (1991, directed by Ken Russell)

Liz (Theresa Russell) is a prostitute trying to survive on the mean streets of Los Angeles.  With the help of a homeless performance named Rasta (Antonio Fargas), Liz tries to escape from her abusive pimp, Blake (Benjamin Mouton).

To its credit, Whore was made as a response to the glamorous and irresponsible way that prostitution was portrayed in Pretty Woman but Whore had too much going against it to succeed.  It was based on a theatrical monologue, which was almost always a bad sign.  The majority of the movie was Liz talking straight to the camera, which was another red flag.  Most ominously, it was a Theresa Russell movie that was not directed by Nicolas Roeg and those never seemed to turn out well.  The director of Whore was Ken Russell but it featured none of the excess that Russell was known for.  Stuck with a low-budget and a reportedly unenthusiastic studio, Russell’s direction was uncharacteristically restrained.  (That’s a polite way of saying boring.)

The one good thing about Whore, and the reason why I’m writing about it during this site’s look back at Twin Peaks, was the presence of Jack Nance, playing one of the few men who actually tries to help Liz.  Nance, of course, not only played fishing-obsessed Pete Martell in Twin Peaks but also starred in Eraserhead and appeared in all of Lynch’s films (with the exception of The Elephant Man) up until Nance’s mysterious death in 1996.  Literally credited as playing “Helpful passerby.” Nance only had a few minutes of screen time but made a definite impression as one of the few kind people to be found in Liz’s dark world.

As a reflection of how much times have changed, Whore‘s title was so controversial that, in 1991, it was released in some areas under an alternative title: If You Can’t Say It, Just See It.