Altered States (1980)

Altered States (1980), directed by Ken Russell.


Emily: Sometimes I wonder if it's me that's being made love to. I feel like I'm being harpooned by some raging monk in the act of receiving God.

Eddie: Am I really that weird in bed?

Emily: Sometimes.

Eddie: Shall I try to change?

Emily: No, I kind of like it.

Let me just give you the quick summary: Love is the answer.

You may think this is about sensory deprivation experiments and psych-scientists getting high on their own supply of Hinchi Indian mushroom mix, exploring altered states of consciousness leading to dramatic physical transformations and even ruptures in dimensional boundaries. (You need really powerful drugs for that).

Those are just plot incidentals. In obsessed William Hurt's drug-facilitated quest for ultimate truth, the real story is his return from that far out orbit, rediscovering hearth and home, simple humanity and the love of a good woman. As his wife told him in the beginning:


You'd sell your soul to find the great truth. Well, human life doesn't have great truths. We're born in doubt. We spend our lives persuading ourselves we're alive. And one way we do that is we love each other, like I love you.

Blair Brown as Cosmic Earth Mother is there is save him, comforting arms always open. Then he saves her. And they were naked and unashamed.

I have always loved this film. It's a bold and confident vision, expressed without hesitation or apology. Believe it or not it is one of Ken Russell's more straightforward narratives, as those who remember Lisztomania (1975) will confirm, often in vivid terms.

Yes, it's hard to tell if it has a coherent mythology supporting the wild hallucinogenic visions and physical transformations. That's ok, make of it what you will.

Yes, the language is high-flown, but I knew people who talked like that, or tried to. The drunken restaurant patter is just perfect and the expressions of the "normal" observers just priceless.

I wish Russell and the others had done a commentary track. Some of the imagery flies by too quickly to see clearly and I'd like to hear their interpretations.

Nudity and passion scenes but no serious violence or gore, apart from some animal carcasses. Much intimidating imagery.

Fine score, both poignant and lyrical in the human scenes, kinetic and scary in the psychedelica.


It's hard to know what to compare this to; there's nothing quite like it. I see some describe it as "body horror", so we might pull in David Cronenberg. But this is a warmer and more fun film than something like Videodrome (1983), a good movie in its own way.

Ken Russell never did anything else similar. I remember hearing that he had both pre- and post-acid work, but googling I'm not finding any commentary on that, so maybe it was just a story. There are several biographies and I should get one.

The Blu-ray is a huge upgrade from the early dismal DVD and I am happy to have it. The colors are fine and the detail often very good. That said, it does have a more-or-less processed look and appears grainless. Fabric detail on the dark jackets is sometimes crushed.