Did seeing Altered States (1980) on VHS help prompt my teenage enthusiasm for drug experimentation? I’m fairly sure that Aldous Huxley, Rimbaud, myriad musicians and the Beats probably beat it to the punch, but the film’s protagonist, played by William Hurt, certainly seemed to encapsulate precisely the sort of dazzled longing for chemical-induced transcendence that wooed by hungry young consciousness. Until he goes ape, at which point things get pretty silly. But that’s nearly two-thirds into the movie, and by then it already had me. I still retain enormous affection for Altered States and am happy for whatever excuse to revisit it.
Hurt remains central to the movie’s appeal, his baby-blues and beatific arrogance. He introduced a new, liberal ideal of Aryan beauty, ambition and intelligence. He must have been pleased that for his big screen debut he would play an irresistible genius. Eddie Jessup is a whiz-kid professor spending all his spare time in a sensory deprivation tank, studiously chronicling his head-trips to his dutiful bearded lab buddy Bob Balaban. The movie starts with Jessup just floating there in the tank in silence, the embryonic hero-shaman. His next big entrance has him surrounded by warm white light in the threshold of a party full of pot-smoking academics halfway through the organ solo of ‘Light My Fire.’ He quickly corners, or rather kitchens, Emily (Blair Brown) the second-smartest-prettiest person in attendance; within hours he beds her, the sex accompanied by religious visions; post-coitally he confesses his psychic need, the childhood realization on his father’s deathbed that death is a harrowing void, so best to break on through to the other side while still kicking; within two months Emily’s proposing marriage to him.
Flash-forward to prestige gigs for both at Harvard, two kids and a martial crisis, and Jessup’s off to the arid Mexican north to hang with Indians and swallow some bubbling brown hallucinogenic concoction that looks like mole but seems meant to resemble ayahuasca. (Wrong hemisphere, but whatever.) The stamp of director Ken Russell, maestro of overstatement, is most clearly seen in the hallucination sequences, which are largely very literal-minded and corny, though there are startling moments, such the extended sequence in which Jessup and Emily lay still on a cave floor, in fetal and sphinx poses, respectively, while a sandstorm first engulfs them and then erodes their bodies down to dust. That bit is about as inspired as Altered States gets, but let us praise the movie for its likable supporting characters, such as Charles Haid's ornery, perpetually gasket-blowing doctor-assistant, and its remarkable fleetness, the way it gallops through exposition without stopping for breath.
The script and source novel were by Paddy Chayefsky, though he would withdraw his name from the finished product, for reasons one can guess at. I haven’t read Chayefsky’s book and thus can’t comment on Russell’s treatment of it, but could anyone, even, say, David Cronenberg, have convincingly realized the story’s final third, in which weird science makes a monkey out of Jessup? Taking more and more of the Mexican brew and spending more and more time in the deprivation tank, Jessup learns the hard way that regressive states of consciousness can be externalized. The movie becomes a little like Cat People (1942/82), with Jessup morphing into a hairy, aphasic version of Iggy Pop, going to the zoo, and slaughtering a goat before waking up naked, incarcerated and temporarily amnesiac. Eventually the movie remembers that it’s actually a love story, which is sort of endearing. Yes, yes, it’s mostly ridiculous, but I can still fantasize a version co-directed by Stanley Kubrick and Henry Jaglom, and I can still let myself fall under its audacious, strangely earnest spell. The movie's title being an instruction as much as a description, it helps, of course, to get totally loaded first.