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John’s Horror Corner: Altered States (1980), an intellectual mix of body horror, intense psychological horror and a wacky ending.

January 16, 2016


MY CALL: This underrated mix of body horror and psychological horror has a lot to offer more intellectual fans–even if it ends on a weak, loony note. MORE MOVIES LIKE Altered States: Possession (1981) and The Manitou (1978).


First I’d like to make a friendly disclaimer that I had not seen this movie before and, as such, my review is completely unbiased by any sense of nostalgia or past impression. That said, however obvious the film’s age may be, the plot did not feel numbed of its intensity as so many older movies can be. Director Ken Russell (The Devils, The Lair of the White Worm) and his cast do a fine job of mature, credible storytelling…at first. Later, it may go off the deep end a bit.


Pondering the inherent value of hallucinations, visions of Christ and other religious experiences, psychophysiologist Dr. Eddie Jessup (William Hurt; The Village, The Countess) experiments with sensory deprivation chambers and Mexican Toltec hallucinogenic mushroom rituals in search of deep inherent answers rooted in the 6 billion-year old atoms that compose our very bodies and which may, indeed, confer “genetic memories” under the right circumstances–that is, with psychedelic drugs.


The dialogue is highly intellectualized and well-versed. If ever there was an 80s horror movie for academics, this is it. Eddie engages in deep reverie regarding the inflexive oneness of Buddhism, resurrection and the self. Obsessed with proving his hypotheses linking our personal biological matter to the ancient past and, primordially speaking, “the beginning,” he sheds himself of all distractions…even his wife and children.


After a decade of experimentation Eddie turns to extremes which appear to afflict him physically. Doctors suggest seizures and trans ischemic attacks, but Eddie “knows” that his body is undergoing temporary transformations to more primordial states.


The sex scenes are not terribly graphic by today’s standards, but there’s something intense about them; not so much physically, but atmospherically. And whereas Eddie maintains a rigid mixture of academic focus and social disconnection, he is balanced by his colleagues’ (including Bob Balaban; Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Lady in the Water) concern for his health and skepticism of his wild claims.



What present-day audiences may find hokey are the very abundant hallucination special effects. I’m sure at the time (back in 1980) they were trance-like and discomfiting. But now they look silly–although they get the job done of relaying Eddie’s mania and some of the religious imagery is a bit disturbing. But still quite pleasing are the pulsating physical effects as Eddie “transforms” into something more primitive which, for at least a moment, smacks of a less elaborate werewolf transformation.


Just as his genius eclipses his sanity, the film takes a turn for the worst into Looney Tunes land as the scenes of him running around as an ape-man felt quite awkwardly displaced and ran too long. The closing finale was weird…I’m not sure I feel satisfied with the outcome.

ALTERED STATES, Miguel Godreau, 1980


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14 Comments leave one →
  1. January 16, 2016 11:21 am

    This looks pretty unusual and whacked out stuff.

    • John Leavengood permalink
      January 16, 2016 5:23 pm

      Unusual = understatement, for sure. lol

      • January 16, 2016 5:29 pm

        Ken Russell wasn’t exactly known for his subtle movies was he?

  2. January 16, 2016 12:57 pm

    Altered States is certainly a strange film. I thought it was quite good, some of the imagery was really striking, although some effects haven’t dated very well. Well worth a look.

    • John Leavengood permalink
      January 16, 2016 5:24 pm

      Dated is right, but still weird and heavy enough to get a reaction out of me. So weird! And the dialogue is so pithy and compelling.

      • January 17, 2016 8:20 am

        Yes, I agree, there is something about this film that makes it so watchable, yet so hard to pin down. It was repeated on TV a while back and I remember watching it again and just becoming engrossed by it all.

  3. January 18, 2016 3:09 pm

    Never heard of this before now, brilliant review, and I’m going to give it a watch!

    • John Leavengood permalink
      January 18, 2016 6:41 pm

      I took forever to finally watch it. It was in my Netflix queue for years, then Amazon Prime suggested it over a year ago…based on the premise it’s hard to realize how seriously unique this film is. So it’s easy to pass up without knowing any better. But to do this day there is nothing like it. Too bad the effects don’t totally hold up, but they work “enough.”

  4. Wm Todd permalink
    February 12, 2016 5:18 am

    I saw this at least twice in theaters when it was initially released. I was 20, and what can I say, my friends and I were the adventurous type, and would go to movies, concerts or places (Disneyland, camping, street fairs, etc) after imbibing mushrooms or other hallucinogens, too bad Burning Man didn’t exist back in the day. I also recall that a few isolation tank business opened up in the wake of this movie, businesses with names like Float to Relax, but they faded out of the public consciousness before long.

    SO anyway, we often drove an hour from Orange County to Westwood to see movies like Altered States in their premieres where they were presented in 70mm prints and insanely loud stereo sound…this one was in the Mann’s Westwood Theater whose ads boasted in huge capital letters MEGASOUND, a 6 track surround sound system that was overwhelming. The effects were huge and hokey, but the movie as presented was overpowering viscerally, even in the quieter moments. The apartment party scene early on where Blair Brown and William Hurt first meet has the long instrumental bridge of “Light My Fire” by the doors blaring on the stereo, loud from the speakers at the sides and rear of the theater, but not loud enough to drown out dialogue from the characters coming from speakers at the front of the theater. The hallucination scenes were an all out excuse to ramp up the crazy musical score, and the one hallucination where Blair Brown and Wm Hurt turn into sand and become engulfed in a sandstorm again used the separation of the speakers to beautiful effect. I could go on endlessly, but will only point out one more scene, and the use of sound in it was deafening, the scene where things go haywire in the isolation tank and the room becomes a glowing whirlpool… The sound is building up to a crescendo, louder and more chaotic, and onscreen all we see are blinding and flashing beams of flickering light in the tank room through the crack under the door, after this intense steady rising of sound and light to
    Sudden dead silence, and dark
    for about a minute and again the sound builds up with a menacing throbbing pulsating rumble and vibration, paid off with high pitched screaming and wailing, and then everything eases off with a slight rush of wind, to The movie was a physical assault on the senses in its latter portion, leaving you feel like you just stepped off a rollercoaster, which as exhilarating as it may seem, was a letdown after the dialogue heavy first half of the movie. The visceral impact seems horribly reduced on tv, but I’ve not seen it on a home theater system. I did get to see the movie again after at least a couple decades and was.pleased to see it hasn’t aged too terribly, in spite of things. Oh, and interesting cameo trivia: late in the movie, you see Jury’s and Brown’s little toddler aged girl….that’s Drew Barrymore in her first role, I think. Anyway, thanks for letting me was nostalgic over this movie. It really was something when it hit theaters back in the day. And I took some subversive delight in the fact that a Ken Russell movie got as much notice as this did.


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