Ken Russell’s Altered States – A Deliriously Visceral Cult Psychedelic Freakout

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    Altered States is a mind-bending cinematic experience that burrows deep into the darkest recesses of human consciousness. Director Ken Russell takes viewers on a primal journey back to the origins of life itself, peeling back the layers of evolution until we confront the raw, pulsating essence that gave birth to existence. It’s a deliriously ambitious artistic vision that doesn’t so much tell a story as it does immerse the viewer in a feverish audiovisual maelstrom of light, sound and gonzo philosophical inquiry.

    At the center of this psychedelic vortex is William Hurt, delivering a fearless breakthrough performance in his film debut as Edward Jessup, a brilliant scientist consumed by the quest to shatter the boundaries of human perception. Jessup’s obsession leads him to concoct an explosive cocktail of sensory deprivation, hallucinogenic drugs, and ancient tribal rituals. The result is a mind-altering plunge into the subconscious gene pool, where Jessup’s physical and psychological devolution escalates with each titillating foray into the primordial ooze.

    Altered States doesn’t just push the envelope – it obliterates it with a Molotov cocktail of visual pyrotechnics and New Age mysticism. This isn’t a movie you simply watch, it’s an initiation rite that batters the senses until audiences surrender to the primal scream echoing from the cosmic womb of creation. Buckle up and prepare for a trip that makes 2001: A Space Odyssey look like a Disneyland resort tour by comparison.

    William Hurt and Blair Brown in Altered States (1980)

    Our review of Altered States

    While the film’s mind-bending visuals and Hurt’s committed performance are its biggest draws, Altered States has more layers to peel back. At its core, it’s a deeply thoughtful and provocative exploration of humanity’s relationship to its evolutionary roots.

    The script by Paddy Chayefsky (Network) doesn’t simply use Jessup’s research as a pretense for far-out sequences. It digs into meaty philosophical and scientific questions about the nature of consciousness, the potential capacities of the human mind, and how our ancestral memories may be encoded into our DNA. Jessup’s experiments tap into these genetic memories, causing him to psychologically and physically regress through the stages of human evolution in shocking visceral detail.

    Yet Altered States keeps at least one foot grounded in reality through Jessup’s relationships, particularly his strained marriage to his wife Emily (Blair Brown). As his obsessions spiral out of control, Emily must wrestle with how far she’s willing to allow her husband’s pursuits to go. Their fraught dynamic injects a powerful emotional undercurrent to the mind-bending chaos. It’s a smart balance of the cerebral and the grounded human element.

    The supporting cast, including Brown, Bob Balaban as Jessup’s concerned friend, and Charles Haid as a fellow academic, all turn in solid performances. But make no mistake, this is Hurt’s tour-de-force. He fully commits to Jessup’s descent, disappearing into the role’s physical and emotional demands without restraint. His anguished, primal intensity keeps the film’s wildest moments feeling hauntingly visceral.

    While Altered States gets bogged down in its own metaphysical navel-gazing at times, it remains a singularly daring and unforgettable cinematic experience. An ambitious blend of sci-fi, horror, and philosophical head trip, it will get under your skin and alter your mind…for better or worse.

    William Hurt and Blair Brown in Altered States (1980)

    What makes Altered States such a bracingly unique viewing experience is how it synthesizes so many disparate elements into a cohesive, if utterly bonkers, whole. On one level, it’s a body horror freakout, with William Hurt’s physical devolution scenes ranking among the most disturbingly visceral this side of Cronenberg. Those sequences, aided by pioneering makeup and visual effects, still maintain their shocking power to unsettle and disgust.

    Yet the film is far from mere splatter-fest. It has the philosophical and spiritual ambitions of a heady campus bull session, grappling with huge existential questions about human consciousness, the origins of life, and whether we contain ancestral memories coded into our DNA. Ken Russell directs these metaphysical musings not with pretentious self-seriousness, but with a gonzo, psychedelic audacity.

    The wildly imaginative hallucination sequences, featuring blinding colors, pulsating shapes, and biblical imagery, immerse viewers in the subjective headspace of Hurt’s Jessup. We feel his rapturous awe at peering into the cosmic womb of creation itself, as well as his primal terror at the notion that our existence may be little more than a tortured scream into the uncaring void. Heady stuff, to be sure, but presented with a visual and sonic intensity that’s as visceral as any horror flick.

    Underneath the existential freakouts and hallucinatory raves, there also beats a painfully relatable human heart. Hurt’s feverish performance and the strained relationship with his wife Emily (Blair Brown, excellent) grounds the cosmic madness with recognizable domestic turmoil. We empathize with Emily’s exasperation at her husband’s obsessive pursuits, even as she gets drawn into the increasingly dangerous experiments herself out of devotion.

    In blending the cerebral and the carnal so seamlessly, Altered States truly lives up to its name. It alters our perceptions, challenging us to contemplate the biggest questions about consciousness and reality, while also subjecting us to a full-bodied onslaught of terrors and taboo-shattering visuals. An undeniably flawed but powerfully unique piece of cult cinema.

    Final Verdict on the Film

    Altered States is a movie that grabs you by the cerebral cortex and drags you, kicking and screaming, into the deepest, darkest recesses of human consciousness. It’s a balls-to-the-wall descent into pure cinematic delirium, aimed straight at punching the third eye wide open.

    Altered States (1980)Altered States (1980)
    Altered States (1980)

    Sure, you could pick apart the flaws – the uneven pacing, the occasional lapses into incoherent pretentiousness, or the way it sometimes gets a little too high on its own supply of mind-expanding psychobabble. But to get bogged down in nitpicking would be to miss the feverish, pulsating power of director Ken Russell’s deliriously audacious vision.

    From the opening frames, this movie shrugs off conventional narrative and thrusts you directly into the primal headspace of William Hurt’s obsessive scientist. As he peels back the layers of his own consciousness through a lethal cocktail of sensory deprivation, hallucinogens, and ancient tribal rituals, we take the plunge right along with him.

    The results are eye-searing sequences of untamed, psychedelic delirium that will sear themselves into your brain meat. Hurt’s shocking physical devolution is visceral body horror at its most disturbingly effective. The symbolic religious imagery and Kubrickian visions of cosmic birth underscore the film’s lofty metaphysical ambitions in pummeling fashion.

    Yet for all its gonzo excess, Altered States remains grounded by the achingly real relationship drama between Hurt and his phenomenal co-star Blair Brown. Their fraught marriage, strained to the breaking point by his obsessions, gives an unexpectedly relatable emotional anchor to all the sound and fury bursting onscreen.

    Love it or hate it, you can’t ignore the singularly unshakable experience of Altered States. It’s an assault on the senses, a challenge to preconceptions, and a dizzying trip to the outer limits of cinematic audacity. Once you’ve been exposed, you’ll never be able to unsee the visions it burns into your brain. That’s the mark of a movie that well and truly alters your state in profound ways. Buckle up and embrace the fear – this mind-bender takes no prisoners.

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