Altered States

New Year’s Eve. 1980. Westwood Village, two blocks north of the University of California, Los Angeles. Go Bruins. Five friends and myself are crammed into the back of my sports van in a parking lot next door to the Village Theater. We have just had dinner, and were preparing to see a midnight showing of “Altered States.” What a way to ring in the New Year. As my friends downed pints of Peppermint Schnapps, I took a couple of swills and then munched on some magic mushrooms my roommate gave me for Christmas.
At the time, I lived in a beach community where such gifts were common place. It was a different place and time. My friends were content with their alcohol buzz, and while I felt a little high, it was nothing like what was to come later that evening. We started partying about 11:30 p.m. By the time we got inside the theater (popcorn all around, we brought our own drinks, thank you), the magic of the mushrooms started kicking in. Since this was my first time on mushrooms, I thought I better let someone know in case I had a bad trip. I didn’t say a word. I just sat there, and waited patiently for the film to begin. And waited. And waited. Earlier, I had thought to myself: How apropos. alteredstatesdvd
Here you are, New Year’s Eve, waiting to see a movie about some guy’s bad trip while you’re on one of your own. Gee, wasn’t college a wonderful time? Didn’t matter. All I know is that I appreciated Ken Russell’s mind trip a lot more than my friends. Perhaps I had connected with it on a different level. Yeah, right. It was the images, man. What a trip.
Psychedelic images that pulsated from one side of the screen to the other. I’ve seen “Altered States” numerous time since then (completely straight I might add), and it still has a visual power that is inescapable. It also features William Hurt in his first starring role, and to look back at the film on DVD in 1999, he’s such a puppy in this film. You almost forget how young Hurt was when he jumped into the spotlight with this film and “Body Heat.”
He still has the hospital nursery tag on his wrist. Hurt is sensational in his debut playing research scientist Eddie Jessup, whose experiments with sensory-deprivation and mind altering drugs have tapped into his basic, primal thoughts. Even though the film takes place during the sixties and seventies, the idea of sensory depravation or isolation tanks was still new to movie audiences in 1980. That’s what made “Altered States” so compelling. It pretended to chart new territory, and we followed along like brave little science students hoping to get a glimpse of brilliance.
Jessup is a hard character to get to know, much less like. He’s pretty much full of himself, and devotes most of his time to his favorite cause: himself. He wants to be taken seriously as a brilliant scientist, and is even willing to sacrifice his marriage to anthropologist Emily (Blair Brown) and his family in search of life’s mysteries. With the help (and a little discouragement) from his friends (Bob Balaban, Charles Haid), Jessup pushes his experiments to the limit. When he enters an isolation tank after taking a potent Mayan mushroom mix (there are those darn mushrooms again), Jessup begins to experience physical and mental changes that suggest he has reverted back to the man at the beginning of time.
All of those jokes about men being apes takes on a whole new truth when Jessup emerges from the tank as a simian creature, ready to hunt down and feed his primal urges. That should make sex more fun, but alas Emily isn’t around for a little moneky business. Instead, Jessup escapes from the lab and makes his way to the local zoo, where he feasts on a gazelle. I guess the McDonald’s drive-through was closed.
Now it’s up to Emily to help her husband break free from the madness he has created, but will her love and naked body be enough? Thanks to the dazzling cinematography, creative make-up effects and visual trickery, “Altered States” is a cinematic acid trip. It’s filled with symbolic images and references that are meant to make you feel uneasy, and they succeed. Some of the images are little hokey by today’s standards, but they’re still effective nonetheless. There’s conviction in every performance, especially Hurt and Brown, who prove that true love can conquer all. Russell delights in shocking his audience, delivering a quasi mix of horror and science-fiction mumble jumble. There’s also a lot of naked flesh on display, with both Hurt and Blair dropping their drawers more than once.
I was surprised to find that on the DVD you can slow down or freeze frame the scene where Hurt is being dragged naked out of the isolation tank and catch the “Full Monty.” The scene goes by so fast on tape it’s undistinguishable, but on the DVD it’s on display for God and country to admire. So much for my college dissertation on William Hurt’s penis. It’s amazing how well “Altered States” holds up twenty years after it’s release. It still has a certain visceral thrill that is both captivating and mesmerizing.


VISION: [ ] 20/20 [ X ] Good [ ] Cataracts [ ] Blind

Working from a less than pristine print, the digital transfer holds up rather well. There are some compression artifacts, and scratches on the original negative (most noticeable during bright daylight scenes), but the colors and their saturation are excellent, while the flesh tones are natural. There are some hot spots in the 1.85:1 widescreen transfer, but they come and go so quick they’re not really important. The blacks are especially strong, creating the ultimate in mood.

HEARING: [ X ] Excellent [ ] Minor Hearing Loss [ ] Needs Hearing Aid [ ] Deaf

Effectively remastered 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround track helps complete the film’s aural and visual experience. While it’s hardly definitive, the soundtrack does make good use of ambient noise, John Corigliano’s pulsating, creepy score and a strong, well mixed dialogue track. Don’t expect Earth shattering basses. However, the middle and high ranges come through loud and clear, with no noticeable hiss or distortion. The echo effects are actually pretty decent. There’s also a French Language track in Dolby Surround.

ORAL: [ ] Excellent [ X ] Good [ ] Poor

English and French subtitles.

COORDINATION: [ ] Excellent [ X ] Good [ ] Clumsy [ ] Weak

Interesting main and scene access menus, plus five theatrical trailers, including one for “Outland.” There’s also two television spots, and cast & crew bios and production notes. As an added bonus, the removable “proof-of-purchase” tabs on the inside of the case are actually a potent hallucinogenic, but you have to suck on them for about an hour before you feel anything.

PROGNOSIS: [ X ] Excellent [ ] Fit [ ] Will Live [ ] Resuscitate [ ] Terminal

While I don’t recommend nor encourage drug use, for a truly hallucinogenic experience, nothing beats Ken Russell’s mushroom munching odyssey.

VITALS: $24.99/Rated R/103 Minutes/Color/31 Chapter Stops/Snapcase/#11076


HMO: Warner Home Video

Comments are closed.