Altered States (1980) – Ken Russell

William Hurt is on the search for the purest truth, and that, in this case, places him squarely in the mad scientist chapter of DK Canada’s very enjoyable Monsters in the Movies book.

Eddie Jessup (Hurt) is a scientist seeking the ultimate truth, and finds himself experimenting with isolation chambers and a ritualistic, possibly hallucinogenic drug to explore the edges of consciousness, and possibly space-time, proving that they are all just altered states.

Working with fellow doctors, Arthur (Bob Balaban) and Mason (Charles Haid), Jessup uses himself as the subject, and blows the doors of his reality wide open before discovering that the truth he is looking for is in the human condition, not some horrific first thought, or first moment.

This truth is driven home through the course of the movie, by the mostly unrequited love his wife, Emily (Blair Brown) has for him. He is so driven by his obsession, to push the edges of discovery, even at the cost of his soul, that he doesn’t realize what his life means.


Layered with religious iconography, and a taut story, which is based on the novel by Paddy Chayefsky, Altered States is arguably Ken Russell’s best film, balancing story, characters and visuals.

Hurt is tonally perfect for the role, conveying Jessup’s drive, and consequently not making him seem like a ‘mad scientist’ just a man driven to find the answers of who we are, and the possibility that space-time isn’t what we thought, that regression, reconstitution, and other levels of consciousness can be accessed under the right conditions.

I remember the first time I saw this movie, back in the days of video tape, and questioned the whole sense of the movie, and feeling disappointed in it. Watching it now, some decades on, I really enjoyed it. There’s a quick side trip in the film that could have been handled differently – the zoo excursion – but everything else works, and I found myself quite involved in the story, and the sense of discovery and exploration.

And honestly, I’ve always been keen to to try an isolation chamber, as I wonder if and what I would hallucinate.

Yes, some of the visual effects at the end of the film, when a final transformation take place look a little out of place now, but they were some of the first computer assisted effects done for film, And overall, I truly did enjoy the story.

I’m sure film buffs can sit and debate the meaning, as well as the imagery and themes of the film for hours, but if you’re just looking for a solid mad scientist movie, and you’ve perused the other titles in DK Books’ Monsters in the Movies, this one may be the one for you!

Or perhaps you’ll find something more macabre in its pages to suit your fancy.




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