The English film director Ken Russell (1927 – 2011) made a name for himself with a number of stylish and controversial films. The Devils (1971), Mahler (1974) and the film adaptation of The Who’s Tommy (1975) displayed a keen eye for psychedelic intensities. So in retrospect, it is not surprising that Russell would eventually make a film dealing specifically with psychedelics: Altered States. Perhaps more surprising is the fact that Altered States was made and released at a point in time when interest in psychedelic culture was at its lowest. The psychedelic wave of the Sixties had subsided and was largely substituted by New Age and alternative therapies. The drug of choice at the end of the 1970s was cocaine. Altered States certainly was not a box-office success but would, with the advent of video rentals, quickly become a cult classic.
Altered States has a fascinating storyline but its cult fame was largely built on the special effects. The psychedelic visions were years ahead and possess an eerie authenticity thanks to Russell’s visual flair and Catholic sensibility. All sorts of clever religious imagery is presented, some of it quite dark and guilt-ridden, often with a surreal twist. The sheets of dissonant music give these visions an extra intensity.
The film tells the story of the young psychology professor Edward Jessup (played by William Hurt). Jessup, a composite of Timothy Leary, Carlos Castaneda, Robert Gordon Wasson and especially John C. Lilly, is doing experiments on sensory deprivation with the aid of floating tanks. But he is looking for more. His fascination with schizophrenia makes him wonder about altered states of consciousness and the authenticity of these experiences. Jessup believes these states are as real as normal forms of waking consciousness. When he hears of a native tribe who uses natural psychedelics to achieve higher states of consciousness Jessup decides to visit Mexico. There he participates in a ceremony which triggers intense visions. Afterwards, Jessup is given a tincture which he brings back to his lab so he can combine the drug with sessions in the floating tank. The combination forms a powerful synergy. Slowly Jessup is changed physically as if undergoing reverse evolution.
Although the second half of Altered States can at times be silly it is also quite tense. And the visual pyrotechnics keep on going up till the psychedelic climax. Like many films of the time, Altered States would have a slow impact, obviously alerting a new generation to the potential of psychedelics. Its influence on popular culture has been interesting, with visual homages in video clips or the recent series Stranger Things and many audio samples can be heard on records by the likes of Ministry and DJ Shadow. After all these years Altered States remains a singular film that presents a unique take on mind-altering substances. A true psychedelic classic.
Altered States (1980)
Director: Ken Russell
Starring: William Hurt, Blair Brown, Bob Balaban
Running time: 103 minutes