Altered States

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Altered States
Altered states.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Ken Russell
Produced by
Screenplay by Sidney Aaron
Based onAltered States
by Sidney Aaron
Music by John Corigliano
Cinematography Jordan S. Cronenweth
Edited by Stuart Baird
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
  • December 25, 1980 (1980-12-25)
Running time
103 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$14.9 million [1] [2]
Box office$19.9 million [3]

Altered States is a 1980 American science-fiction horror film directed by Ken Russell based on the novel of the same name by playwright and screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky. The film was adapted from Chayefsky's only novel, published in 1978, and is his final screenplay. Both the novel and the film are based in part on John C. Lilly's sensory deprivation research conducted in isolation tanks under the influence of psychoactive drugs like mescaline, ketamine, and LSD.


It marked the film debut of William Hurt and Drew Barrymore. Chayefsky withdrew from the project after disputes with Russell and took his name off the credits, substituting "Sidney Aaron," his actual first and middle names.

The film score was composed by John Corigliano (with Christopher Keene conducting). The film was nominated for the Academy Awards for Best Original Score and Best Sound Mixing.


Edward Jessup is a psychopathologist who, while studying schizophrenia, begins to think that "our other states of consciousness are as real as our waking states." Edward begins experimenting with sensory deprivation using a flotation tank, aided by two like-minded researchers, Arthur Rosenberg and Mason Parrish. At a faculty party, he meets fellow "whiz kid" and biological anthropologist Emily, and the two eventually marry.

Seven years later, Edward and Emily have two daughters, are on the brink of divorce, and reunite with the couple who first introduced them. When Edward hears of a Mexican tribe that experiences shared illusion states, he travels to Mexico to participate in what is apparently an Ayahuasca Ceremony. During the walk into the bush, his guide says that the indigenous tribe they are meeting works with Amanita muscaria , which they are collecting for next year's ceremonies. The tribe calls one of the ingredients of the mixture they use "First Flower." An indigenous elder is seen with Banisteriopsis caapi root in his hand before cutting Edward's hand, adding blood to the mixture he is preparing. Immediately after consuming the mixture, Edward experiences bizarre, intense hallucinations. He returns to the U.S. with a tincture and continues taking it to trigger altered states of consciousness.

When toxic concentrations of the substance make increased dosage dangerous, Edward returns to sensory deprivation, believing it will enhance the effects of the substance at his current dose. Repairing a disused tank in a medical school, Edward uses it to experience a series of increasingly drastic visions, including one of early Hominidae. Monitored by his colleagues, Edward insists that his visions have "externalized". Emerging from the tank, his mouth bloody, frantically writing notes because he is unable to speak, Edward insists on being X-rayed before he "reconstitutes." A radiologist inspecting the X-rays says they belong to a gorilla.

In later experiments, Edward experiences actual, physical biological devolution. At one stage he emerges from the isolation tank as a feral and curiously small-statured, light-skinned caveman, going on a rampage through some streets in town before returning to his natural form. Despite his colleagues' concern, Edward stubbornly continues.

In the final experiment, Edward experiences a more profound regression, transforming into an amorphous mass of conscious, primordial matter. An energy wave released from the experiment stuns Edward's colleagues and destroys his tank. Emily arrives to find a swirling maelstrom where the tank had been. She searches the vortex for Edward, finding him as he is on the brink of becoming a non-physical form of proto-consciousness and possibly disappearing from our version of reality altogether.

His friends bring Edward home, hoping that the transformations will end. Watched over by Emily, Edward begins to uncontrollably regress again, the transformations no longer requiring the intake of "first flower" or sensory deprivation. Urging Edward to fight the change, Emily grabs his hand, immediately being enveloped by the primordial energy emanating from Edward. The sight of his wife apparently being consumed by the energy stirs the human consciousness in Edward's devolving form. He fights the transformation and returns to his human form. In the final scene, Edward embraces Emily, and she returns to normal.




The film had its origins with a meeting Paddy Chayefsky had with his friends Bob Fosse and Herb Gardner at the Russian Tea Room in 1975. They were feeling "disgruntled" and as a joke conceived a movie they could make together. They wanted to pitch something to Dino De Laurentiis, who was making King Kong. After discussing a version of Frankenstein they decided to do a version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde . [4] Chayefsky went home and wrote a three-page "dramatic statement and I have never seen something come together so fast." [5]

Chayefsky decided to write a serious film on the American scientific community and the archetypal man in his search for his true self. A producer at Columbia Pictures, Daniel Melnick, suggested that Chayefsky turn a treatment he had written into a novel first and he agreed. He did extensive research with scientists and anthropologists. [5] The novel was published in early 1978. [6] [4] As was the case with his previous films, Chayefsky was granted full creative control over the film version of Altered States. [4]

Film rights were sold to Melnick, who had greenlit Network while head of production at MGM, and who had a deal with Columbia. In April 1978, he turned in his script to Columbia. [7] In June 1978, Melnick became head of production at Columbia, but under his deal he was still allowed to produce Altered States. [8] Melnick wound up resigning in October, taking Altered States with him. [9]

The film's original director was Arthur Penn. He cast the movie, including the relatively unknown leads William Hurt (in his first movie) and Blair Brown. [10] At one point, Scott Glenn was a contender for the male lead. [11] Another key role went to Bob Balaban. [12] Miguel Godreau, a dancer and teacher with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, was cast as Jessup's caveman incarnation. [13]

Filming was to begin in November 1978. However, during rehearsals Penn resigned [2] after a dispute with Chayefsky. [14] Penn later recalled that that only way he could leave the project and get paid for his work was to be fired. But he and Chayefsky remained friends thereafter. [15]

The eventual director was Ken Russell, who had struggled to find feature film work since the box office failure of Valentino (1977). Russell later recalled that "they wanted a director who has a very visual imagination, and they knew I had that." [16]

Russell later said his agent told him directors who had turned down the project included Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, Sydney Pollack, Robert Wise, and Orson Welles. He says his agent told him he was the twenty-seventh choice. [17] Filming was then set to begin in March 1979 for Columbia with Howard Gottfried as producer. [18] The film would eventually be done for Warner Bros, in part because the cost rose from an original budgeted $9 million to $12.5 million. [19] It would eventually come in at just under $15 million with $4 million of that going on special effects. [1]

Conflict with Chayefsky

There were three weeks of rehearsals in March. During this time Chayefsky and Russell had a massive dispute and the writer left the project. He did not appear on set during filming, contrary to his normal practice. [20] [21]

"I couldn’t work with someone else judging everything I did," said the director. "Chayefsky told me, ‘I’ll just be on the set as a benign influence.’ The producer said, ‘How do you spell benign, Paddy?’ He answered, ‘W-I-C-K-E-D’. He was joking but he wasn't joking’." [16]

Itzkoff's book chronicles the making of Altered States and claims that Russell, objecting to Chayefsky's interference, had the writer banned from the set. Chayefsky reportedly tried to have Russell removed as director, but by then the film was already well under way, and the studio already had replaced one director (Penn).

Russell said Chayefsky "didn't like the color of the paint on the isolation tank. Then it went on to other things. He didn't like the lighting, then he didn't like the machinery, then he thought I was making the actors appear drunk in a scene where they were written to be slightly tipsy in a bar... There was a lot of embarrassing dialogue, and there was a hell of a lot more in the original script than there is now; it was a verbose script." [22]

The film's producer, Howard Gottfried, told Chayefsky's biographer Shaun Considine that Russell was polite and deferential prior to production but after rehearsals began in 1979 "began to treat Paddy as a nonentity" and was "mean and sarcasatic." He called Russell a "duplicitous, mean man." [4]

Chayefsky later withdrew his name from the project so the screenplay is credited to the pseudonymous Sidney Aaron. Film critic Janet Maslin, in her review of the film, thought it "easy to guess why": [23]

It's easy to guess why [screenwriter Chayefsky] and [director Ken Russell] didn't see eye to eye. The direction, without being mocking or campy, treats outlandish material so matter-of-factly that it often has a facetious ring. The screenplay, on the other hand, cries out to be taken seriously, as it addresses, with no particular sagacity, the death of God and the origins of man.

Film critic Richard Corliss attributed Chayefsky's disavowal of the film to distress over "the intensity of the performances and the headlong pace at which the actors read his dialogue." [24]

"Paddy's hallucinations were impossible to film," said Russell later. "He'd write a direction, something like Interstellar gas shot through 5 million miles of universe like a puff of cigarette smoke.' But when I read the script, I realized the picture would only succeed to the extent that it dramatized a certain experience common to all men. And that experience isn't gas going through the universe." [25]

Russell maintained that he changed almost nothing in Chayefsky's script, and called the writer "impossible to please." [26]

"We shot every word that Paddy wrote except for some trifling changes in the Mexican sequences," said Russell. "In fact, I was more faithful to the script in 'Altered States' than in any previous movie, and I think I did it great justice." [27]

"We're saying every word exactly as he wrote it," said Brown during filming. "I suppose the truth is he [Chayefsky] and Ken are such different personalities they found it impossible to work together." [20] [28]

"Ken has been scrupulous in following the text," said Melnick. "Right from the start Ken accepted that he was doing a Paddy Chayefsky screenplay not a Ken Russell screenplay." [19]

According to one source close to the film, "Two strong artists were jockeying for control and, at a given point, a movie becomes a director's movie. You can't stand over his shoulder. You either support him or fire him." [1]

Russell admitted he did not "shoot scenes as he was used to having them shot in other movies he has been involved in. I try to avoid the covering shot, long shot, close-up technique. Instead, I try for long, fluid sequences." The director said he felt Chayefksy had never "been involved with a director who wasn't malleable. He would make suggestions, and I would listen courteously, and then disagree. Paddy hated the lighting, for example, and he didn't like the color scheme of some of the sets. 'I can't use your eyes,' I told him. 'I've got to use my own. In any case, there can be only one director on a picture." [27]

Russell added, "there is a great deal of dialogue in 'Altered States,' and as I saw it, my task was to make those scenes as visually interesting as possible so they wouldn't be swallowed up by the special effects." [27]

Russell also wound up replacing special effects expert John Dykstra with Bran Ferren, who is credited for Special Visual Effects in the front titles, and created the VFX actually used in the film. [29] [30] Dick Smith worked on the effects. [31]

It was the first time Russell made a film in Hollywood. He later said "I thought I would hate Hollywood, but I rather liked it. Everyone there is supposed to be terribly materialistic, but Altered States was the first movie I ever worked on where nobody—not Warner Bros., not Dan Melnick, the executive producer, or Howard Gottfried, the producer—ever mentioned money." [27]

Melnick said the film was "really scary stuff, a huge leap forward from films like Star Wars. And because it has a serious scientific underpinning it's much more frightening than something like The Exorcist." [19]


Box office

Altered States grossed $19.9 million at the box office [3] against a production budget of $15 million. [2]

Critical response

On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 84% based on 44 reviews, and an average rating of 6.81/10. The website's critical consensus reads "Extraordinarily daring for a Hollywood film, Altered States attacks the viewer with its inventive, aggressive mix of muddled sound effects and visual pyrotechnics". [32] On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 58 out of 100, based on 13 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews". [33]

The initial reviews were generally strong. ""It's been a while since I've gotten the acclaim I've gotten on Altered States," said Russell. [22]

Janet Maslin of The New York Times termed the film a "methodically paced fireworks display, exploding into delirious special-effects sequences at regular intervals, and maintaining an eerie calm the rest of the time. If it is not wholly visionary at every juncture, it is at least dependably—even exhilaratingly—bizarre. Its strangeness, which borders cheerfully on the ridiculous, is its most enjoyable feature." [23] She also called it "in fine shape as long as it revels in its own craziness, making no claims on the viewer's reason. But when it asks you to believe that what you're watching may really be happening, and to wonder what it means, it is asking far too much. By the time it begins straining for an ending both happy and hysterical, it has lost all of its mystery, and most of its magic." [23]

Richard Corliss began his review of the film thus: [24]

This one has everything: sex, violence, comedy, thrills, tenderness. It's an anthology and apotheosis of American pop movies: Frankenstein , Murders in the Rue Morgue , The Nutty Professor , 2001 , Alien , Love Story . It opens at fever pitch and then starts soaring—into genetic fantasy, into a precognitive dream of delirium and delight. Madness is its subject and substance, style and spirit. The film changes tone, even form, with its hero's every new mood and mutation. It expands and contracts with his mind until both almost crack. It keeps threatening to go bonkers, then makes good on its threat, and still remains as lucid as an aerialist on a high wire. It moves with the loping energy of a crafty psychopath, or of film makers gripped with the potential of blowing the moviegoer's mind out through his eyes and ears. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Altered States.

Corliss calls the film a "dazzling piece of science fiction"; he recognizes the film's dialogue as clearly Chayefsky's, with characters that are "endlessly reflective and articulate, spitting out litanies of adjectives, geysers of abstract nouns, chemical chains of relative clauses", dialogue that's a "welcome antidote to all those recent...movies in which brutal characters speak only words of one syllable and four letters." [24] But the film is ultimately Russell's, who inherited a "cast of unknowns" chosen by its original director and "gets an erotic, neurotic charge from the talking-heads scenes that recall Penn at his best." [24]

Pauline Kael, on the other hand, wrote that the "grotesquely inspired" combination of "Russell, with his show-biz-Catholic glitz mysticism, and Chayefsky, with his show-biz-Jewish ponderousness" results in an "aggressively silly picture" that "isn't really enjoyable." [34]

John C. Lilly liked the film, and noted the following in an Omni magazine interview published in January 1983:

The scene in which the scientist becomes cosmic energy and his wife grabs him and brings him back to human form is straight out of my Dyadic Cyclone (1976)...As for the scientist's regression into an ape-like being, the late Dr. Craig Enright, who started me on K (ketamine) while taking a trip with me here by the isolation tank, suddenly "became" a chimp, jumping up and down and hollering for twenty-five minutes. Watching him, I was frightened. I asked him later, "Where the hell were you?" He said, "I became a pre-hominid, and I was in a tree. A leopard was trying to get me. So I was trying to scare him away." The manuscript of The Scientist (1978) was in the hands of Bantam, the publishers. The head of Bantam called and said, "Paddy Chayefsky would like to read your manuscript. Will you give him your permission?" I said, "Only if he calls me and asks permission." He didn't call. But he probably read the manuscript. [35]

Christopher John reviewed Altered States in Ares Magazine #6 and commented that "Simply put, Altered States is very good at what it proposes to do – luckily it proposed to do very little." [36]

In Ready for My Close-Up!: Great Movie Speeches (2007), screenwriter Denny Martin Flinn called Chayefsky's screenplay "brilliant" and selected Emily's speech as "Chayefsky's last great take on life and love." [37]

According to TV Guide , Basil Dearden's 1963 film The Mind Benders "is the direct predecessor of Altered States." [38]

Awards and honors

The film was nominated for two Academy Awards: [39]

See also

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  11. MOVIES: FINDING KETCHUM, GLENN FOUND HIMSELF. Mills, Bart. Los Angeles Times 30 Jan 1983: k26.
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  24. 1 2 3 4 Invasion of the Mind Snatcher, a December 1980 review by Richard Corliss in Time
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