BluRay/DVD Reviews

ALTERED STATES

By • Jul 31st, 2012 •

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Paddy Chayefsky is a legend among writers, not only for breaking in television as a formidable art form in the 50s, but for writing films like THE HOSPITAL, THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY, and NETWORK. By the time he decided to adapt his novel “Altered States” as a screenplay, he had accumulated unprecedented power and influence in Hollywood. With his name alone, Chayefsky would be able to get an ambitious, big-budget adaptation made.

Arthur Penn, fresh off ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, was involved for a while with ALTERED STATES, but left the project because he felt uncomfortable helming such an effects-heavy movie. Warner eventually settled with Ken Russell, who was rapidly falling out of favor as a director thanks to the abysmal critical and commercial performance of VALENTINO in 1977. Russell claimed he was the studio’s 27th choice for director. William Hurt, in his film debut, nabbed the leading role.

The story involves Dr. Edward Jessup (Hurt) who begins the film performing sensory deprivation experiments in a flotation tank. Jessup wants to go further with his experiments, and travels to Mexico in order to obtain a rare and powerful hallucinogenic drug to use in conjunction with sensory deprivation. The experiments spiral further and further out of control, causing terrifying hallucinations, flashbacks, and possibly regressing Jessup on a genetic scale.

Ken Russell found Paddy Chayefsky’s script unsatisfying to say the least. Chayefsky is one of only two writers in history to have final cut privileges on films of their works, meaning Russell had to film the script down to the word. Russell stuck to the contract… technically. All the dialogue from Chayefsky’s script is there, but whenever Russell would film a passage he thought wasn’t interesting, he’d have the actors speak over each other so the dialogue would overlap, have the actors speak their lines very quickly, or deliver lines while eating. Sections with scientific jargon and long-winded explanations of abstract concepts in particular are prone to this. Chayefsky was furious and had his name taken off the screenplay, which is credited to the non-existent ‘Sidney Aaron’.

ALTERED STATES seems to have all the components of being a disaster; a director who was literally the studio’s last choice, a screenplay few had any respect for, coupled with an unproven leading man in his very first film. Not to mention the amount of visual effects, which, back in 1980, was unusual and difficult to pull off.

For the most part, the film is solid and suspenseful, building well towards some pretty weird subject matter. Then, about halfway through, there’s a sequence that absolutely kills all of the horror and suspense. I won’t give away what it is, but suffice to say, you’ll know it when you see it. Apart from that sequence, the film comes tantalizingly close to being an acceptable thriller, and the visual effects and make-up work is amazingly executed. The hallucination sequences in particular are genuinely inventive and terrifying, especially effective due to the rapid-fire cutting. Composer John Corigliano makes a nightmarish avant-garde soundtrack that plays off the mood well.

The cast is near-perfect. Hurt is for the most part very believable in the lead, playing off the other characters’ fear of his tampering with the unknown, first with an upbeat ‘we can do it!’ attitude, then with a more aggressive approach as he becomes more and more obsessed with his experiments. Blair Brown is great as his speculative ex-wife, while Bob Balaban gets a number of good laughs as Hurt’s right-hand man.

For it’s initial release in 1980, some 70mm prints of ALTERED STATES played in an early 5.1 sound process Warner had devised called Megasound. This process boasted extra speakers and an emphasis on low-frequency sound. The Blu-Ray boasts a 5.1 DTS track that is amazingly robust considering the film’s age. The final isolation tank scene in particular is impressively loud and all-enveloping.

The Blu-ray is a great step up from the DVD, the latter of which was released all the way back in 1998, in the format’s infancy. The picture is very sharp and full of detail, although it’s actually much darker than its DVD counterpart. The aforementioned visual effects sequences hold up to a surprising degree, and are actually helped by the increased resolution. There are no extras, save for a trailer, which is disappointing but understandable given the film’s troubled production.

ALTERED STATES is a film that’s fascinating to dissect and read about, but very frustrating to watch due to its flaws. Warner’s Blu-ray comes recommended to those who are curious and have never seen it before.

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One Response »

  1. I think I remember the scene you mention, but I’ll have to rewatch to make sure.

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