Altered States is Ken Russell’s most Hollywood film in a career that for the most part eschewed conventional and commercial cinema. As such it is an interesting case, an indicator of what Russell could have done had he toed the line. In fact, Richard Bancroft in his review of Lisztomania sees the film as a kind of penance, paid as compensation for Ken Russelling everyone to death in his earlier film.
Based on a novel and screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky of Network fame, Russell got the directing job after Arthur Penn bailed on the project. Russell claimed later to have been the twenty-seventh-choice director. Of course, Russell had in the past turned his hand to more conventional fare, the Harry Palmer entry Billion Dollar Brain (1967) for instance, but on the surface at least the subject matter had a wackiness that must have been appealing.
William Hurt, in his motion picture debut, plays Eddie Jessup, a scientist researching the links between schizophrenia and religious experience. A wild-eyed visionary and, like other Russell heroes such as Father Grandier and Tchaikovsky, a devotee to unconventional truth, Jessup answers a post-coital ‘What are you thinking?’ with the ludicrous ‘God … Jesus … crucifixions’. ‘I feel like I’m being harpooned by a monk,’ his lover Emily (Blair Brown) understandably complains. As part of his research, Jessup uses an isolation tank to try and regress to a more primal state of being. With the collaboration of his colleague Arthur (Bob Balaban) and against the opposition of Mason (Charles Haid, famous later for Hill Street Blues), Jessup begins experimenting with drugs to intensify the experience, but with increasingly dangerous consequences, especially when he begins to physically change under the influence of the altered state of his mind.
For the most part the film is conventionally shot by Jordan Cronenweth, who would go on to film Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Russell gets to have some fun with the hallucinations, taking advantage of the lingering influence of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) to produce suitably ‘mind-bending’ visuals, multicoloured blobbing paint stuff, along with Cecil B. DeMille-like scenes of Hell (actually taken from Harry Lachman’s 1935 film Dante’s Inferno) and a whiff of religious controversy. The appalling pretentiousness of the whole film and the mumbo jumbo of the dialogue, taken verbatim from Chayesky’s book - he has to be one of the few screenwriters who took his name off a project because they kept his dialogue intact - is weirdly made into something almost clever by the way the performers rush headlong through it without any winking and Russell holds his camp in check, perhaps with the exception of a ludicrous monkey man escape/dog chase/zoo invasion section. When Jessup finally goes too far with his experiment and basically becomes a whirlpool, it is tempting to think that Russell is presenting us with a visual metaphor of the film disappearing literally up its own hole. With Jessup saved from being a Mugwump for life via the love of a good woman and a sequence that would go on to inspire an A-ha video, the film ends with the kind of conventional sentiment (love conquers all) that seems so clichéd and ridiculous that it might actually be true.