Horror Movie Review: Altered States (1980)

Altered States is a Sci-Fi horror film that was directed by Ken Russell based on the novel of the same name by playwright and screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky. It follows a Harvard scientist who conducts experiments on himself with a hallucinatory drug and an isolation chamber that may be causing him to regress genetically.

Edward Jessup is a psychopathologist who studies schizophrenia. He becomes fascinated by the concept of there being other states of consciousness. Edward begins experimenting with sensory deprivation using a flotation tank. He is aided by two like-minded researchers, Arthur Rosenberg and Mason Parrish. At a faculty party, he meets biological anthropologist Emily, and the two marry.

Seven years later, Edward and Emily have two daughters, are on the brink of divorce, and reunite with the couple who first introduced them. When Edward hears of a Mexican tribe that experiences shared illusion states, he travels to Mexico to participate. While there he consumes a mixture that induces intense hallucinations. He returns home with a tincture and continues taking it to trigger altered states of consciousness.

It soon becomes apparent that Edward’s experiences go far beyond the bizarre visions. In later experiments, he experiences actual, physical biological devolution. Where will this lead?

Altered States is one hell of a ride. It presents a number of striking visuals that are very trippy to say the least. In fact, many of the effects were very innovative for the time. Unfortunately, a lot of the CGI doesn’t hold up to standards of modern films. Still, they are effective in getting their message across and add to the strange aura of the film. The practical effects hold up incredibly well though.

Edward is a really interesting character to dissect, just the way he looks at things. I found the section in which he meets his wife to be extremely rushed. They literally go from meeting, to married with kids in 5 minutes. It doesn’t make no sense due to the way that Edward is but still.

The dialogue in Altered States is a bit of a hurdle to get over. There is an almost constant deluge of technical terminology, scientific mumbo-jumbo and pretentious babble. I followed it as well as I could but in all seriousness, I’m not a scientist. Considering the complexity of the dialogue I give huge credit to everyone involved in the film. The performances from everyone are outstanding.

The whole film has this delightful sense of dread, if that’s your thing. It really makes you think about consciousness and what that really means.

Altered States is a surreal, compelling experience. I’d say it’s best to not think too hard about the technicalities and just enjoy the crazy ride. I may not have fully understood everything but I did find it fascinating. I don’t see myself forgetting it any time soon. Also, there is a lot of really interesting trivia surrounding the film. There was a huge feud between the director and author, it’s worth reading about.




Altered States
  • The Final Score - 8/10
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