Altered States (1981)

NOVEMBER 25, 2007


Well, after Gothic, I was certainly not clamoring for more Ken Russell movies, but I always heard good things about Altered States, and any movie with William Hurt AND Bob Balaban can’t be altogether bad, so I gave it a shot. And while I wouldn’t go so far as to say I loved it, it was certainly enjoyable for the most part, if totally fucked up and at times just utterly baffling.

The film reminded me of old school Cronenberg (The Brood and Videodrome in particular) in which a ridiculous concept was taken deadly serious and paced very deliberately, favoring dialogue and a cerebral tone over typical action and horror. There’s also a lot of religious imagery (particularly in the first half hour or so, thankfully weeded out as the film progressed in favor of just discussing God rather than show dream sequences of blood pouring on a Bible), so crazy Catholics be wary.

The effects work is pretty phenomenal (then again, it’s Dick Smith, so that’s sort of a given), most of it holding up even today. The utterly baffling finale features a lot of truly horrible greenscreen/matte compositing, but the “ApeMan” suit as well as the frequent bulging muscles on Hurt’s arms and head are just as good as anything we see nowadays. I’m not sure if it’s really Hurt inside the ape getup, but the extended sequence is the most exciting in the film, and features the rare sight of a guy punching an elephant in the face.

I must admit I was pretty bummed that a good chunk of the film is supposedly set in Boston, yet they don’t even bother using an establishing shot to “prove” they were there (according to the IMDb they really did film there, but damned if I recognize any of it). Christ, there’s not even a shot of some rowers on the Charles, a Boston movie staple! I would love to see a full blown, legit horror movie in my beloved home capital, but until then, stuff like this and the Concord set House By The Cemetery will have to suffice.

And if you’re a Blair Brown fan, she gets frequently nude in this film. Keep in mind that the film was made in 1980, so it’s a lot more appealing than you might think if you only know her from her appearances on Law and Order or CSI. Also, Drew Barrymore pops up (not nude) as one of their daughters.

This movie came out on Christmas Day. I go the movies every Christmas, and even though one year’s movie was the roller coaster thrill ride that is Munich, I can’t imagine how this talky, brainy, strange film played to a crowd on such a festive day (especially considering that one character is described as wanting to fuck God). Fun for the whole family!

What say you?


  1. I'm curious to see what you say here. I haven't watched it in a while. But I really dug it. It was one of those,

    "I'm at CostCo's or BJ's and I'm in the movie section where they sell them super cheap for some reason. I think I'll buy it, it has a cool cover.", type of things.

    Trippy movie.

  2. OK, so now I see what you said. I suppose I agree with you. I think I enjoyed it more than you, but I genrally like weird crap.

    Shortly after I watched this movie for the first time I met a dude who built his own sensory deprevation tank...or whatever they are called.

    He'd get high and then immerse himself until he tripped. I asked him if he was a William Hurt fan. He stopped talking to me.

    The end.

  3. I haven't seen this in a couple of years, but I remember loving how weird and kinda scary it was. Another Russell film that is batshit insane and worth seeing is Lair of the White Worm, although I can't say I loved that one.

    By the way, is there a master list of all the films you've reviewed? Or a way to search all your posts?

  4. There should be a little search box at the top left of the page... but no master list really (you can collapse all the movies for each month, but it wont be alphabetical)

    Maybe I'll check out Worm... it's on DVD right?

  5. I never considered this to be a horror film.Its more an "In search of the meaning of life and God by taking psychedelics and lying in sensory deprivation chambers".Meanwhile the first Dean R Kunts book I read in 1992 was "Midnight" which totally rips off the main plot points of "Altered States",but puts it into a horror setting.Only I found that out later.
    Anyway when I first watched this film in 93 it made me want to A:take some of the "medicine" involved.
    B:Get a sensory deprivation chamber.
    Meanwhile I've still never done either.
    I tell you:before I die I'm gonna get some ayuasca and lie in one of those chambers so I get to meet God whilst still living and chat about the next life and well everything else as well.....

  6. yeah, LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM (based on a Bram Stoker novel) is available on DVD. It's like if CALIGULA and DRACULA had a baby at Clive Barker's house. But, unfortunately, not as cool as that may sound. Sorry to get your hopes up!

  7. I love this movie, I still remember seeing it when it came out in the theater, I paid once and snuck back in two more times. It is really a great movie, especially when you think that it did come out in 1980. Love it.

  8. Good review there, my feelings exactly. I saw this one about 18 years ago (sheesh!) and it kind of stuck all these years. I still find a very intelligent movie, genuinely original and very well acted. A work of love and it shows :)

  9. I just saw this yesterday for the first time and loved it, i remember watching how the makeup fx was done with jeff like 15 years ago on that tom savini show he had and have been wanting to check it out since.

    The subject of psychedelics and sensory deprivation were handled very cleverly and accurately and it made the film that much more appealing especially in the subject matter of god and creation itself.

    The last 8 mins or so got a little bizarre and "meh" but all around I LIKED IT VERY MUCH.


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