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Ken Russell American films

Altered States

Ken Russell Altered States    Ken Russell Altered States

Ken made it to America and another shift as he tackles science fiction.  Again it could have been the start of a wealthy but ultimately disappointing career. However he remained the individualist and despite the major success of Altered States in 1980- second only to Tommy- his American ventures though interesting failed.

Russell claims the film was first offered to Spielberg, Kubrick, Sidney Pollack, Robert Wise, Welles, Scorsese, Fred Zimmerman, Woody Allen, Ingmar Bergman, de Palma, Bertolucci, Boorman, Tarkovsky, Irwin Kirshner, Coppola, Polanski, Dick Lester, Michael Winner, Sidney Lummet, Dick Donner, George Lucas, Roeg, Schlesinger, Truffaut, Zeffirelli, Bryan Forbes then Ken Russell.

Ken Russell Altered States

The story concerns Dr Jessup, a university scientist experimenting with sensory deprivation causing hallucinations.  He complements his experiments with a visit to Mexican Native mystics and the potion he drinks later combined with his experiments cause Hurt to regress to a Neanderthal creature who´s only aim is to eat, drink, sleep and survive.  A plot driven film with a weak sub-plot of love conquering Faustian ambition "you are a Faustian freak, selling your soul to find the great truth".

Ken Russell Altered States

The dialogue in the film is at times like the worst (whining) of Woody Allen´s man-woman self-confessionals. This may reflect Russell's emotions after his own divorce, but the fault lies mainly with scriptwriter Paddy Chayefsky.  There are too many messages (Faust and selling one's soul, primeval origins, the essence of soul etc etc) which conflict with the too busy imagery of psychedelic journeys and bodily transformation.

Ken Russell Alttered States  Ken Russell Altered States

The pacing is also faulty. The psychedelic images come very early, and the Neanderthal creature is shown the moment he emerges, so at the end of the film there are no surprises left, rather just repetition of effects.  There is a lot of sentimentality with gushing violins "if you love me we can fight it", only occasionally is there some sharp writing- the student girl in bed still calls her lover Dr Jessup.  But despite its weaknesses it does often succeed and demonstrated that Russell could turn out mainstream Hollywood successes. The hallucinations are stunningly beautiful.

Ken Russell Altered States

Altered States

The influence of Dali.

He could have developed a career as a sci-fi/ horror director but turned down later sci-fi scripts to avoid being typecast. If the film was 20 minutes shorter, with most of the family scenes omitted, it would be a classic.  The budget was $9 million which rose to just under $15 million. After shooting there was a 10 month period of special effects production.



William Hurt stars, his first film. Blair Brown plays his wife who is supposed to be as much a genius as he is, but her acting never shows it.  Drew Barrymore is the young daughter.

Music is by classical composer John Corigliano. It was his first music for film and he later won the oscar for his music for The Red Violin. The music is at times extremely effective, for example in the cave sequences.

The editor is Eric Jenkins and photography is by Jordan Cronenweth. SFX are by Brian Ferren. The film is based on the novel by Paddy Chayefsky with the script by Sidney Aaron- a pseudonym for Chafesky adapting his own novel- he wanted to disassociate himself from the film. Assistant to Ken Russell is Vivian Jolly, his later wife.


Best Image

Ken Russell Altered States   Ken Russell Altered States

The old native Indian men, faces pale and mummified.
The old factory with shafts of light falling vertically.

Best Scene

Altered States Altered States
Altered States Altered States

The blood on the hand becoming a small lizard. Then a large lizard appears, which becomes the woman-lizard (the same scene is in Lair of the White Worm when the snake woman is cut in half). The sands turn the woman and man into sand statues (literally petrifies them), and then wears them down into nothing. When the hallucination is over nothing is left but a lizard ripped open.
The creature hunting in the zoo and coming across the gift shop with plastic monkeys etc for sale is reasonably funny.




Altered States

There is a television wwithin the film of a girl with electrodes in the laboratory. The images are very similar to those of Linda Blair in the hospital in The Exorcist. She later appears in a wheelchair.

The sensory deprivation follows on from the blind Tommy and paralysed Delius.

In the hallucination sequences a snakes wraps itself around Hurt´s neck. There is a whole field of crucifixions and various other devil/ crucifixion scenes. The elements, fire, earth, water and air, feature heavily.

The native Indian scenes are on mountains not too dissimilar to Russell's British mountain scenery.

Similarly the old laboratory could be the rusting ship of Alien, the father in the bed comes from Song of Summer and 2001 A Space Odyssey and the entrance to the cave is similar to the climax of Close Encounters. The Indian imagery is at times similar to Kenneth Anger's Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome. The creature awakening as human in the zoo is identical to the later American Werewolf in London.

Lots of shots of William Hurt silhouetted down a long corridor, significantly just before he meets his wife, and just before the final transformation leading to reconciliation.

The old laboratory has a pile of tailors dummies, lumped together like dead bodies.

Hurt kneeling naked beside his future wife after their lovemaking is the same image as in Valentino.



Other films released in the same year include Robert Redford's Ordinary People, Polanski's Tess, Kubrick's The Shining and John Carpenter's The Fog.

Ordinary People  Tess by Polanski  The Shining  John Carpeter The Fog


More films

Click title for film French Dressing * Billion Dollar Brain * Women in Love * The Music Lovers* The Devils * The Boy Friend * Savage Messiah * Mahler * Tommy * Lisztomania * Valentino * Altered States * Crimes of Passion * Gothic * Aria * The Lair of the White Worm * Salome's Last Dance * The Rainbow * Whore * Mindbender * Trapped Ashes/ The Girl with the Golden Breasts


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