Cinema and hallucinogens: a match that’s a far cry from our typical pairings on television or theater screens. Yet, Ken Russell is one of those classic directors who doesn’t have any trouble submerging your head into pools of visual craziness. All the humdrum of any plot is thrown out the window and replaced with the utmost of sadistic experiences. His 1971 breakout masterpiece “The Devils” tackles sexual repression under the guise of the Roman Catholic church and is perhaps most infamous for splicing religious power and horniness with the ever-so sacred crucifix. Nearly ten years after “The Devils,” Russell coupled salvation with a magic mushroom trip in his 1980 film “Altered States.” This film possesses the off-kilter elements of a B-movie classic while also containing a remarkable lead performance from William Hurt.
“Altered States” follows the path of psychopathologist and workaholic Edward Jessup (Hurt) as he seeks to find other conscious states outside of the one we inhabit. Jessup studies schizophrenia and the subconscious while stimulating his body via sinking himself into a flotation tank. Outside of his work, Jessup finds love and has children, but is unable to appreciate any sort of romantic relationship when his brain fixates on his work. He is later called to Mexico to try out an exclusive type of mushroom from a native tribe which managed to evoke an intense state of hallucination.
Edward takes a sample of the mushroom from Mexico and runs constant tests. His examinations are visually outrageous, even by Russell standards. The sequences feature the opening of rifts between hallucination, reality and full-on human transformation. The film can be considered an epic amalgam of body horror and psychological thriller. Yet, both genres still don’t manage to do this beast of deception and terror justice.
“Altered States” is a narrative that makes you wonder what was in the coffee of screenwriter and certifiable genius Paddy Chayefsky when, in the Russian Tea Room in 1975, he, cartoonist Herb Gardner and director Bob Fosse came up with this idea. The latter of these three is one of the great film and stage directors of all time, who crafted one of the most perfect musicals about the ineffable ambiguity of death in “All that Jazz” (1979). “Altered States” sends us back into the pits of rueful confusion and impending doom by way of Jessup, but instead of hearing “it’s showtime,” we are hearing “memory is energy!”
Even up to this point, there is still so much left to unpack with a film so dense in content and meaning. But, that’s what happens when your film features a mushroom trip consisting of a seven-eyed, humanoid goat figure atop a crucifix, or a man floating through a sky while being cooped up in a tank of fish. The truth is that “Altered States” indulges the viewer in the styles of a plethora of genres without ever really centering on one. You may watch the film and feel ostensibly dirty by the end of it because of its gratuitous meshings of sex and religion, which obscure any sense of a true identity. But the absence of this genre or defined style is another allusion to one of the final lines of the film, spoken by Jessup: “The final truth of all things is that there is no final truth.” So, when there is no final truth, how can we really learn anything? All we can do is watch and admire. With Russell’s “Altered States,” this is no easy task, but it will forever be a core example of a quintessential, multi-genre masterwork.