Wow, if you had told me I would procure a time machine and then use it to go back to a year like 1980 I would have called you freakin’ nuts (unless we were going back to see The Cure in concert at their best that is). However Takashi and I did indeed travel back to the dawn of the 80’s, to cocaine, devil cults, Michael Jackson’s beginning ascent to greatness* and yes, Ken Russell’s (dum da dum!) ALTERED STATES!!!
(spoiler below, as if you care for a movie from almost thirty years ago! Just sayin…)
I’ve been meaning to re-watch this one for a while, just because I didn’t remember too much about it. Then recently somewhere on the web I read that the cover for GODFLESH’s brilliant Earache album STREETCLEANER is a still image from this flick and I carved out a niche of time and sat down with a healthy buzz to re-asses this, ah, classic? It’s a classic to me because movies that have been sampled by bands like Ministry usually become immediately endeared to me as such, and there are some Psalm 69 samples afoot in this one.
Anyway, you may remember that quite some time ago I spoke about another Ken Russell movie here, the incorrigible Fall of the Louse of Usher. Well, if that was an example of Mr. Russell’s mind finally being consumed by madness Altered States is an example of a way stop along that road. It’s out there, don’t get me wrong, but it is still wrapped in the veil of a story. Not the best story of all time, admittedly, but also one I quite liked as I recognize the fictionalization of intellectual psychonauts such as Timothy Leary and Terence and Dennis McKenna, whose works I’ve read, re-read and tried for the better part of ten years to wrap my head around. Altered States takes these esoteric consciousness quests and zip-packs them into a fairly cohesive vehicle for the story of a man, Dr. Edward Jessup (played by William Hurt) who is obsessed with taking powerful Native People’s psychoactive compounds and then submerging himself in isolation tanks in a quest to unlock the mysteries of consciousness and the human mind. I will admit remembering that the first time I watched this one I was psyched by the story but then a little weirded out when said experiments end up resulting in devolving Jessup into a ‘primordial man'; an ape-like first human who wakes up in the tank and proceeds to run around New York clobbering security guards and eating gazelles at the local zoo. Actually I suppose if the film would have just ended with that we would have the proto-M. Knight Shamalamadingdong flick here, cuz ya wouldn’t a’ seen that coming, right?
Seriously, ape-man aside, the flick is still a neat watch** even though the story never really goes anywhere. After ape man and waking up naked at the zoo (don’tcha hate that?) Jessup’s wife and friends interrupt with concern***, but then they realize he is on to something and back him for one last experiment, during which Jessup inexplicably (d)evolves into a sort of sentient Special FX budget, because there is no other way to explain the denouement of the film other than, “Hey Ken, we ah, went through all this trouble for a budget and to make a thought-provoking flick but we forgot the one essential in 1980’s studio distributed flicks like this – lasers, lasers, LASERS!!!
So the climax is this big, kinda from out of nowhere atari-lookin’ meltdown and then the film just kinda ends.
While watching Altered States, which I have now moved from my ‘I-don’t-know-if -I’m-comfortable-having-this-displayed-with-the-bulk-of-the collection-even-though-we-hardly-have-guests cabinet to the proper movie shelf right after Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and just before Angel Heart, I thought about how I would write about this flick. My immediate thought was it could quite possibly best be summed up with one word, so I’ll give that to you now and call it a day.
* Nothing smarmy to say here. RIP MJ. I’ll always love those Quincy albums and hold to my theory of your innocence.
** Yes, ‘neat’ is used here in full awareness that when a normal adult uses the term to describe something it is indeed a smidge condescending.
*** Lots o’ these today, eh? One of Jessup’s friends is played by Charles Haid and even though you probably don’t know who that is by name (I didn’t) if you watched movies or tv in the 80’s you will know this guy right away for his charming every-discussion-becomes-a-shouting-match style of delivering for ALL dialogue. Love this guy, and when I IMDB’d him not only did I realize he was on hill street blues (along with Dennis ‘I’ll show him my ass and then he’ll confess’ Franz but he was the voice for none other than Montgomery Moose in The Getalong Gang. Now, armed with this information watch Haid’s argumentative performances elsewhere and imagine a councilor recommending he do the getalong gang for catharsis. As Alf would say, HAH!