Altered States

“We’ve got six billion years of memory in our minds”

by Antoinette Fernandez

What’s Ken Russell doing with this one? Is this just a straight up ‘say no to drugs’? Or a ‘once you hit thirty it’s time to settle down and get married, and start saying no to all the drugs’? Or is it ‘look see what the drugs can do, isn’t it amazing’?

Definitely one to watch during weed week, or just whilst smoking weed, Altered States has had words such as psychedelic and delirium thrown at it, which makes sense. But you can also add eighties example of male disconnectedness and emotional immaturity, as well as unselfconscious portrayal of drug use, and even more so sketchy and unhygienic example of scientific practice on film.

Altered States

“You’re supposed to be reputable scientists!”

The benighted female love interest portrayed by Blair Brown is interesting because unlike many other brilliant female scientists/academics depicted on film, she has that whole eighties emotional crying, screaming woman thing going on which makes for a bit of change. Although they do give her a few good lines including “I have to wonder if it’s me being made love to… I feel like I’m being harpooned by some raging monk in the act of receiving god”, said whilst trying to convince William Hurt’s character to marry her.

William Hurt fans rejoice, as he gets naked and sweaty rather a lot, and you will no doubt appreciate his flushed and sculptured visage passionately revealing the wondrous things that he has seen in the cold, dark isolation tank.

Altered States

“Memory is energy! It doesn’t disappear – it’s still in there. There’s a physiological pathway to our earlier consciousnesses”

Made a long time before CGI, the film has that organic feel about its special effects because they have actually been crafted by hand, an Oscar-winning one for that matter as Dick Smith (special effects/make up) is responsible for the crazy faces in a number of brilliant films. Though dated, this hands-on approach adds a strange sense of realness to the characters, that man in a monkey suit is really having to act like a monkey, and is doing a damn good job at it.

Altered States is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Paul Chayefsky who also wrote the script, but due to a clash with Russell on the tone of the film, had his name removed from the credits. It is also and possibly ironically, Drew Barrymore’s film debut.

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The SFT original Altered States poster by Matt Marquis

At the time Altered States heady combination of sex, drugs, nudity and violence was considered to be rather daring for a Hollywood film – though nothing more than you would expect from a Ken Russell picture. Clearly some of those aspects no longer have the same impact, but our very own naughty Ken attacks the subject matter with a firmly visceral yet entertaining hand that stands the test of time.

Altered States will be screened at The Institute of Light (E8 3SB) on Monday 15th May. Tickets are available here.

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