Fango Flashback: “ALTERED STATES”
There are many words to describe filmmaker Ken Russell: brilliant, provocative, enigmatic, self-destructive. But if there’s one word that you cannot attribute to Russell, it would be “accessible,” as the filmmaker took pride in challenging audiences around the globe with his particularly unsubtle brand of cinema. Yet while Russell has flirted with mainstream appeal occasionally, specifically with TOMMY and CRIMES OF PASSION, the closest he’s ever done so in the horror genre is likely the trippy and terrifying ALTERED STATES.
As a film, ALTERED STATES has a very interesting and compelling dynamic to it in that the film is incredibly dated yet somehow still relevant in today’s society. Considering the progression of science in the decades since the film was released, and how intense and divisive the search for our creation has become, ALTERED STATES has thematic material that’s absolutely within the zeitgeist of American scientific culture now. Yet even beyond the dated machinery and production design, ALTERED STATES also carries many thoughts and concepts that may have been more cutting-edge around the time of its release, but now feels like right out of a holistic conspiracy theory blog.
However, that dynamic is not a fault of the film in any way; in fact, if you can get through the wordy and dense dialogue, ALTERED STATES is a gorgeous and captivating movie from start to finish. The imagery is breathtaking, the performances are involved and the emotional stakes are absolutely gripping; even if you’re confused watching the film, you’re still likely to be caught off-guard by how terrifying a film about true science fiction can be. And ALTERED STATES is 100% a horror film through and through, especially if you subscribe to the genre as being tied to a fear of the unknown.
This particular brand of unrelenting yet mind-bending form of horror is nothing new to Russell, who tackles Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay head-on and with a sense of fantastical dread; in fact, some of the imagery on display could very well have inspired the likes of more mainstream horror fare like POLTERGEIST. While Russell and Chayefsky’s disagreements on the project were varied and prolific, Russell opted to still tell Chayefsky’s contemplative screenplay but in an entirely different manner, focusing on the surreal sequels as opposed to Chayefsky’s philosophical and pseudo-scientific dialogue. And Russell’s vision is even more haunting and effective thanks to the Jordan Cronenweth’s bold, experimental cinematography as well as John Corigliano’s selectively bombastic score.
ALTERED STATES also has the benefit of having an incredible cast, each of whom sell their jargon-laden dialogue with an organic rapport. William Hurt is dynamite in the film, offering a uniquely physical and authentically horrifying performance as the empathetic yet ideologically dangerous Dr. Jessup. Likewise, Blair Brown’s performance oozes with sincerity, offering a heartbreaking look into a woman who watches her husband descend into his own dark humanity. And both Bob Balaban and Charles Haid are exceptional as Jessup’s professional partners, with the former working towards sympathy as the latter works towards skepticism.
As a whole, ALTERED STATES is still a beast of its own; rarely does horror ever touch the psychedelic levels of this film, and even more rarely is it as effective. Russell’s film can, at times, wrap the brain, but if you can keep up with the film, ALTERED STATES is a gripping tale of science, madness and de-evolution guaranteed to leave you feeling something. And as the film jumps between the sensual and the horrifying, ALTERED STATES never falls apart, which is a testament to both Russell and Chayefsky; even in the hatred for one another, their talents still produced an unshakeable cinematic experience.