Altered States (1980) marked the explosive—in more than one way—meeting of filmmaker Ken Russell (in his first American film) and screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky. It was not a good alliance on a personal level. The two men didn’t hit it off—and I’m being understated here. However, this meeting of what critic David Denby called the “visual and verbal blowhards” (Russell being the former, Chayefsky the latter) produced an extraordinary—and controversial—horror film with remarkable scenes of horrific fantasy. Oddly, it’s both unlike anything in either man’s career and exactly like their other works.
The furor that surrounded the movie during production was widely reported, owing to the outspoken nature of the two main players. Russell had come to the production after Arthur Penn had quit and quite a few other directors had passed on the project. (Russell was considered a risky choice after the box-office failure of Valentino in 1977.) He and Chayefsky were immediately wary of each other—something that exploded into open warfare when Russell found out Chayefsky was re-directing the actors behind the scenes. By that time, however, the producers had had enough of Chayefsky, who was ordered to back off—which he did by going back to New York City and making a big show of having his name taken off the screenplay. (Yes, it was pretty silly, since he made it that much clearer that it was his screenplay in the process.)
If you compare the novel to the film, it’s easy to see where the trouble arose. Russell was more interested in the hallucinatory aspects of the story—something the book barely describes and in the most prosaic manner imaginable. More, it was simply a clash of two not unsizable egos with different visions and very different personalities. Russell got a little extra revenge with an in-joke worked into the film. In the novel, after the sequence where the main character regresses to the state of a primal man, he and his wife discuss the event over instant coffee. In the film, the instant coffee becomes a bottle of Mumm Cordon Rouge. Russell commented to me after the fact, “I hated Paddy’s addiction to Sanka, and he hated my addiction to Cordon Rouge.” It’s unlikely the import was lost on Chayefsky.
However, the core of Chayefsky’s story and his screenplay emerged unchanged. For that matter, Russell liked his practice of rehearsing the dialogue to near perfection before shooting. The resulting film really ought to have suited the writer—except for the fact that he wasn’t in complete control—and maybe it did, but Chayefsky never said.
The story—tagged by some as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Goes to College—was all about a brilliant, but somewhat inhuman scientist, Eddie Jessup (William Hurt), who is determined to get back to “the first thought,” the moment that was the creation of the universe. This he attempts via the use of an isolation tank and a hallucinogenic drug obtained from a tribe of South American Indians—mindless of the price it extracts from his family, friends and, for that matter, himself. Yes, it’s pretty loopy stuff that leans heavily on the writings of Carlos Castaneda and 1960s mysticism. In fact, the script recognizes this by having the most unwilling of the participants, Mason Parrish (Charles Haid), remark, “I thought all that isolation tank stuff went out in the ‘60s with Timothy Leary and all them other gurus.” But—assuming you can go with the premise—it works within the confines of the film.
The film’s real hook was—and is—the fantasy scenes, and these hold up remarkably well 30 years after the fact. There’s a true sense of wonder, awe and terror to them, and Russell—working with the biggest budget of his career—allowed his imagination to run wild. In fact, Altered States became a cult classic on this basis alone, being particularly cherished by the late-night stoner crowd, who had timed the film so they could sneak out for another toke or two during the dialogue scenes. While that’s amusing, it’s also rather unfortunate, because it obscures the fact that the film itself is pretty darn impressive on a number of other levels and has a cumulative emotional punch that’s quite unexpected.
When the film first appeared, it looked like it was going to be a huge hit—and a very controversial one. Audiences in New York City and Los Angeles flocked to it, but theaters started reporting incidents of viewers who had trouble getting up after the movie, resulting in a need to reschedule the show times to accomodate this. Not surprisingly, this resulted in allegations that Russell had used subliminal editing and “unorthodox sound procedures.” Nothing came of this (it’s actually easily disproved and no one ever tried explaining what “unorthodox sound procedures” were), but the film wasn’t out of the woods. Altered States may have been a hit in the big cities, but it crashed and burned in middle America. Some theaters didn’t even play it for the standard full week.
The overall experience was not a pleasant one for Russell, who turned his attention to directing opera for the next few years. Russell wouldn’t return to movies until 1984 with Crimes of Passion. Today, however, the fights with Chayefsky and the silly fuss over the editing are all footnotes, and the film can be enjoyed for the wild sci-fi horror fantasy it is and always was.