Altered States: Wikis


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Altered States

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Ken Russell
Produced by Howard Gottfried
Written by Paddy Chayefsky
(as Sidney Aaron)
Starring William Hurt
Blair Brown
Bob Balaban
Charles Haid
Thaao Penghlis
Miguel Godreau
Dori Brenner
Peter Brandon
Charles White-Eagle
Drew Barrymore
Megan Jeffers
Music by John Corigliano
Cinematography Jordan S. Cronenweth
Editing by Eric Jenkins
Distributed by Warner Brothers
Release date(s) December 25, 1980
Running time 102 minutes
Country USA
Language English
Budget $15 million[1]

Altered States is a 1980 science fiction film adaptation of a novel by the same name by playwright and screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky. It was the only novel that Chayefsky ever wrote, as well as his final film. Both the novel and the film are based on John C. Lilly's sensory deprivation research conducted in isolation tanks under the influence of psychoactive drugs like ketamine and LSD.

The film was directed by Ken Russell and starred William Hurt in his screen debut. It also starred Blair Brown (as Emily Jessup), Charles Haid and Bob Balaban. It additionally featured the film debut of Drew Barrymore. The film score was composed by classical composer John Corigliano (with Christopher Keene conducting) and was nominated for an Academy Award. The film also received an Oscar nomination for Sound, losing to The Empire Strikes Back.



Edward Jessup (Hurt) is a university professor of abnormal psychology who, while studying schizophrenia, begins to think that "our other states of consciousness are as real as our waking states."[2] Jessup begins experimenting with sensory-deprivation using a flotation tank, and he travels to Mexico to participate in, what seems to be a mushroom tea, but is undoubtedly an Ayahuasca Ceremony. An indigenous elder was seen with Banisteriopsis caapi root in his hand prior to cutting Jessup's hand, adding the ingredient of blood. Immediately after consumption he experiences bizarre, intense, paradigm-shifting imagery. The professor then returns to the U.S. with a tincture and begins taking it orally before each session in the flotation tank where he undergoes a series of increasingly drastic psychological and physical transformations.

Doctor Edward Jessup's mind experiments lead him down a path of actual, physical biological devolution. At one stage he emerges from the isolation tank as a feral and curiously small-statured, light-skinned Primitive Man. In a subsequent experiment he is regressed into a mostly amorphous mass of conscious, primordial matter. It is only the physical intervention of his wife Emily which brings him back from this latter, shocking transformation in which he seems poised on the brink of becoming a non-physical form of proto-consciousness and possibly disappearing from our version of reality altogether.

The experiments go even further out of control in that Professor Jessup experiences episodes of involuntary spontaneous temporary partial de-evolution. This occurs outside of the isolation tank and without the intake of additional doses of the hallucinogenic tincture. His early reaction is more one of fascination than concern, but as his priorities gradually change via Emily's unwavering determination to keep from losing him to some unfathomable state of non-being, he finally begins to act like someone who values his humanity more than the vast, impersonal nothingness that underlies all of existence.



Selected premiere engagements of Altered States were presented in Megasound, a high-impact surround sound system similar to Sensurround.[citation needed]


The film's original director was Arthur Penn, who resigned[1] after a dispute with Chayefsky.[citation needed] Special effects expert John Dykstra also resigned. The film was originally set up at Columbia Pictures, who would later drop the film, before Warner Bros. picked the film up. Chayefsky later withdrew his name from the project; film critic Janet Maslin, in her review of the film, thought it "easy to guess why":[3]

It's easy to guess why he and Mr. Russell didn't see eye to eye. The direction, without being mocking or campy, treats outlandish material so matter-of-factly that it often has a facetious ring. The screenplay, on the other hand, cries out to be taken seriously, as it addresses, with no particular sagacity, the death of God and the origins of man.

Film critic Richard Corliss attributed Chayefsky's disavowal of the film to distress over "the intensity of the performances and the headlong pace at which the actors read his dialogue."[2]


Janet Maslin of The New York Times called the film a "methodically paced fireworks display, exploding into delirious special-effects sequences at regular intervals, and maintaining an eerie calm the rest of the time. If it is not wholly visionary at every juncture, it is at least dependably—even exhilaratingly—bizarre. Its strangeness, which borders cheerfully on the ridiculous, is its most enjoyable feature."[3] She also called it "in fine shape as long as it revels in its own craziness, making no claims on the viewer's reason. But when it asks you to believe that what you're watching may really be happening, and to wonder what it means, it is asking far too much. By the time it begins straining for an ending both happy and hysterical, it has lost all of its mystery, and most of its magic."[3]

Richard Corliss began his review of the film in dramatic fashion:[2]

This one has everything: sex, violence, comedy, thrills, tenderness. It's an anthology and apotheosis of American pop movies: Frankenstein, Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Nutty Professor, 2001, Alien, Love Story. It opens at fever pitch and then starts soaring—into genetic fantasy, into a precognitive dream of delirium and delight. Madness is its subject and substance, style and spirit. The film changes tone, even form, with its hero's every new mood and mutation. It expands and contracts with his mind until both almost crack. It keeps threatening to go bonkers, then makes good on its threat, and still remains as lucid as an aerialist on a high wire. It moves with the loping energy of a crafty psychopath, or of film makers gripped with the potential of blowing the moviegoer's mind out through his eyes and ears. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Altered States.

Corliss calls the film a "dazzling piece of science fiction"; he recognizes the film's dialogue as clearly Chayefsky's, with characters that are "endlessly reflective and articulate, spitting out litanies of adjectives, geysers of abstract nouns, chemical chains of relative clauses", dialogue that's a "welcome antidote to all those recent...movies in which brutal characters speak only words of one syllable and four letters."[2] But the film is ultimately Russell's, who inherited a "cast of unknowns" chosen by its original director and "gets an erotic, neurotic charge from the talking-heads scenes that recall Penn at his best."[2]

John C. Lilly liked the film, and noted the following in an Omni magazine interview published in January 1983:

The scene in which the scientist becomes cosmic energy and his wife grabs him and brings him back to human form is straight out of my Dyadic Cyclone (1976)...As for the scientist's regression into an ape-like being, the late Dr. Craig Enright, who started me on K (ketamine) while taking a trip with me here by the isolation tank, suddenly "became" a chimp, jumping up and down and hollering for twenty-five minutes. Watching him, I was frightened. I asked him later, "Where the hell were you?" He said, "I became a pre-hominid, and I was in a tree. A leopard was trying to get me. So I was trying to scare him away." The manuscript of The Scientist (1978) was in the hands of Bantam, the publishers. The head of Bantam called and said, "Paddy Chayefsky would like to read your manuscript. Will you give him your permission? I said, "Only if he calls me and asks permission." He didn't call. But he probably read the manuscript.


Some of the events portrayed in this film seem to be based on the studies of the French surrealist and author Antonin Artaud[citation needed]; the protagonist visits a tribe of isolated Mexican tribal people and participates in their sacred shamanic ritual involving local hallucinogens for the purpose of investigating the common religious experience. Much of the setting of this part of the film also appears to be based on Artaud's description of the natural, although seemingly man-made landscape of the people. In the movie, this was represented by huge stone mushrooms often called hoodoos and attributed to the supernatural.

In popular culture

  • James Cameron imitated the film's "sliding" opening title effect in his debut movie, The Terminator, released four years later.
  • Ambient/experimental band House of Low Culture not only named their second full length album, "Edward's Lament", after the films main character but also based the album around some of the same themes in the movie.
  • The film's final scene, where Eddie Jessup slams himself against a wall as he alternates between human and devolved form, has been referenced in an MTV promo, A-ha's video for "Take On Me", and the South Park episode "Tsst".
  • British industrial metal band Godflesh have used stills from the film as covers for a number of their single and album releases.
  • Grindcore band Agoraphobic Nosebleed used many samples from the movie on their album Altered States of America.
  • Altered States is sampled on the song "Psalm 69" by Ministry.[4]
  • Parodied on Fridays' February 27, 1981 episode as "Altered Statesman", in which Ronald Reagan (John Roarke) hallucinates from previous presidents including Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, and all the way to JFK.
  • Parodied on Saturday Night Live's March 7, 1981 episode as "Altered Walter" with guest host Bill Murray as Walter Cronkite.
  • Dialog from the film is sampled by DJ Shadow in "What Does Your Soul Look Like, Part 3" on the Preemptive Strike Album.


See also

External links



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