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Ken Russell American films

Ken Russell Altered States

"Mr. Russell... combines electronic music, video imagery and all manner of visionary artifacts in a fast, ear-splitting, spectacular array: people turning to dust; multiple crucifixions; fish and serpents in the sky. Images like these seem perfectly at home in the film's dizzying, frenetic mode" (Janet Maaslin, New York Times, 25 Dec 1980)

Altered States from 1980.  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.

William Hurt in Ken Russell Altered States

Ken Russell Altered States

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 Altered States

An example of the dialogue: "I don't know how even to put this into words, but I'm beginning to think that what happened to you last night was not just a hallucinatory experience, I've got this gut feeling that something phenomelogical did actually happen and that there was some kind of genetic transformation.  I don't know why I think this in defiance of all rationality but I do and now that I do I am terrified, I am really terrified, petrified".

I tried watching parts of the film with the sound turned off, and playing Van Morrison's Into the Mystic instead.  It does allow you to concentrate on Ken's non hallucinatory images which are as always beautifully crafted.  However you do miss out on Corigliano's soundtrack.

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 

Ken Russell Altered States 

Ken Russell 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.  Some of the effects have dated badly.

Aha Take on Me

The video for Aha's Take on Me pays homage to the transformation scene.

As an example of how to put your own prejudice into a review, here is Ian Nathan's review in Empire magazine, 01-01-2000 "Not one to let slow-building tension and mystery get in the way of wild flourishes of extremism and shock, Ken Russell hit upon a story that more or less handled his structural excesses and tendency toward blasphemy....It's got Russell's trademark eccentricity (read: slight bonkers-ness) all over it, which you may take as a warning or a recommendation" (from here).  The film has many flaws, mostly from the script, but this review is just shoddy writing with no analysis.

For an example of good writing here is Tom Buckley's interview with Ken "For better or worse my films are not known for their dialogue scenes. In fact, I've been accused of not knowing how to direct dialogue, although, ironically, Paddy said that one reason I was hired after Arthur Penn left the picture was because of the way I had handled the dialogue scenes in 'Savage Messiah.' Well, 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" (New York Times, 6 Jan 1981, click here).


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.  "Faced with the film’s themes of drug-induced hallucinations and human regression, [Corigliano] says he felt his music had to explore further. 'That was when I started to go deeply into the subconscious, forgetting about pitches and rhythms and just going to what sounds seemed right' ” (Richard Fairman,  Financial Tikmes, 15 Jul 2021).

The film also features Light My Fire by The Doors and Pierre Henry's La Voile d'Orphee.

The editor is Eric Jenkins and photography is by Jordan Cronenweth. SFX are by Brian Ferren.

The film includes a short scene in hell from Harry Lachman's 1935 film Dante's Inferno.

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.

Ken Russell Altered States

Assistant to Ken Russell is Vivian Jolly, his later wife.

Ken Russell Altered States

Ken Russell Altered States


Best Image

   Ken Russell Altered States  Ken Russell Altered States

The old native wise men, faces pale and mummified.

Ken Russell Altered States

Ken Russell Altered States

The old factory with shafts of light.

 Ken Russell Altered States

Ken's composition is always perfect.

Ken Russell Altered States

Ken Russell Altered States

Stranger Things- Altered States

 The creators of the Netflix series Stranger Things pay homage to Altered States.

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.

Ken Russell Altered States

The creature hunting in the zoo and coming across the gift shop with toy monkeys etc for sale is reasonably funny.



Ken Russell Altered States

There is a television within 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.

Ken Russell Altered States  Ken Russell - Lady Chatterley

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.  Compare with Russell's Lady Chatterley (right).

Ken Russell Altered States

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.

William Hurt in Ken Russell Altered States

Ken often has characters with their mirror images.




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


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