Back in 1981, this was a must-see for several reasons. It was sci-fi, it was directed by Ken Russell and the make-effects were by Dick Smith.
I'd enjoyed many earlier Ken Russell films on TV. They were the rudest and most anarchic images to be shown on British TV for many years, with full-frontal nudity, blasphemy, and a healthy disregard for cliche. The Devils (1971) is his most even, must-see movie, though it's appearance on DVD is long overdue. (More on Ken Russell here.)
Apart from a midnight showing of Tommy, Altered States was my first chance to see his work on the big screen. This was ironic, being one of his most 'orthodox' films, strictly sticking to straightforward storytelling, with his trademark visual excesses confined to dreams and hallucinations. Until the first 'trip', you wouldn't recognise this as Ken Russell at all. Of course, this could also be because he was making an expensive Hollywood movie, with the story's author (Network's Paddy Chayefsky) also trying to pull the strings on his script adaption of his own book. According to Russell, he was the 27th director to be asked!
Jessup, a student investigating the origins of man via 'inner journeys', tries to unlock millions of years of secrets of the mind by using sensory deprivation techniques, like experimental isolation tanks. When he learns of an ancient South American ritual involving a rare hallucinogenic mushroom, he combines the two techniques to attempt to travel back into ancient memories stored in his brain, with startling results. As the advert said, "the experiment is on himself".
I'd not seen William Hurt before, he gained wider recognition with Body Heat the following year. As Jessup's wife, Blair Brown was also a new face, recently a regular in J.J. Abrams' Fringe, which also featured an isolation tank in the pilot episode. I recognised Bob Balaban from Close Encounters of the Third Kind playing Jessup's assistant, no doubt recruited for his fantastic look of amazement. Charles Haid plays his incredulous boss, soon to be a mainstay of Hill Street Blues, Officer Renko.
The unseen star of Altered States was Dick Smith, a modern day Lon Chaney whose make-up effects had convincingly turned Linda Blair into a devil-child and Max Von Sydow, Dustin Hoffman and Marlon Brando into much older men (respectively in The Exorcist, Little Big Man and The Godfather). While his ageing make-up is his specialty, Smith also designed and fabricated startling effects for a select few horror movies, like Ghost Story (1981), The Sentinel, David Cronenberg's Scanners, and The Hunger. Though he didn't want to spend too much time in the genre, despite the current demand for slashers.
Dick Smith spent many months experimenting with techniques for various scenes in Altered States, but as reported at the time in Cinefantastique which featured it on two front covers, most of his hard work failed to appear in the final cut. Anyone interested in horror effects and make-up simply must learn more about Dick Smith, who has also inspired, advised or nurtured all of today's masters of the profession. There's an illustrated overview of his career here.
What can be glimpsed of Dick Smith's imaginative work is startling, but there's a lot going on. The lighting effects, combined with stage effects like the light-whirlpool are also spectacular. Though his apeman scenes derail the movie for a while, coincidentally very similar to a scene in An American Werewolf In London (1981), where a naked man wakes up in a zoo.
While I was hungry for special effects and a 'wow factor' in the cinema in 1981, the story's more far-fetched scenes aren't as interesting to me now, as much as the early scenes of Jessup's several 'trips' and how they reveal his character. The extended South American hallucination is especially well-staged and colourfully shot, with the director's bizarre imagination running riot.Jessop's mental trips are also more interesting than his eventual physical ones, which are only as successful as the various special effects. Altered States is still a fascinating story, little known now beyond being visually quoted in the massively successful A-ha video 'Take On Me'.
The movie would be wonderful with a commentary track, (particularly Ken Russell's opinions on Paddy Chayevsky), and of course a special edition about the making of the film and the 40 minutes of film that weren't eventually used. But the DVD is a no-frills anamorphic widescreen release with a 5.1 audio option - at least it's in circulation.