In his autobiography 'A British Picture', Ken Russell claimed to be the twenty-seventh director to have been offered Altered States. His predecessor Arthur Penn (Bonnie And Clyde) endured a strained relationship with writer Paddy Chayefsky which under Russell degenerated even further, Chayefsky eventually demanding his name be removed from the credits.
The director, ailing somewhat at the end of the 1970s, wanted not merely to hammer on the doors of perception, but kick open the gates to Hollywood. It never quite happened, yet his tripped-out treatment of this psychoactive psychodrama is as ambitious, vivid and endearingly indulgent as Tommy or Lisztomania, and more efficient than the overripe romances - Gothic and The Lair Of The White Worm - that followed in the late 1980s.
William Hurt makes his feature debut as Professor Eddie Jessup, a brilliant Harvard neuroscientist. His experiments with an isolation tank lead to an encounter with a tribe of Native American Indians whose potent hallucinogens cut Jessup free from the shackles of reality, then modify his own physiology. For reasons the script can never explain, Jessup starts slipping down the evolutionary ladder, first to a state of pre-human savagery and then into primordial gloop.
Russell has never been a director troubled by restraint and in his research for Altered States - inspired by the work of psychedelic pioneer Dr John Lilly - he partook of the odd mind-bending pharmaceutical himself. The film's hallucinatory interludes have the sensationalist symbolism common to most cinema drug sequences, but the sex, lizards, phallic mushrooms and crowds diving into volcanic larva are an example of Russell at his most flamboyantly apocalyptic, and were responsible for the film's enthusiastic reception by 1980s space cadets who, according to Russell, would go and hit the bong and blotter during the talky bits, then return for the protoplasm and explosions.
Hurt, Blair Brown and Bob Balaban are unstintingly earnest throughout, rightly reasoning this is the safest approach to lines like, "There's a physiological pathway to our earlier consciousnesses, and I'm telling you it's in the goddamned limbic system". Chayefsky, who wrote Sydney Lumet's brilliantly cynical media satire Network, was adamant that his script be adhered to word for word. Russell may merely have been attempting to get one over the writer by reducing several key exchanges to baffling bluff during which everyone talks at once, but the approach serves as sarcastic comment on intellectual posturing while suggesting reality is at once subjective and faintly ridiculous.
Like much of Russell's work, Altered States is ostentatious and pretentious yet genuinely engaged with ideas and style. A disappointing drift towards horror convention renders the finale rather less meaningful than it thinks it is, but with Russell stirring up the potion behind the camera, it remains one helluva trip.