On Altered States and the Art of Making a Science Fiction Cult Classic

The science fiction film Altered States bears all the hallmarks of a cult film. For one thing, it’s about outsider topics, like psychedelic mind states, genetic memory, float tanks, and entheogens. For another there’s a fair amount of quality behind it. It was directed by Ken Russell, a director mainly known for making quality cult films. More importantly though it was based off a book by Paddy Chayefsky, and actually written by him too, although he changed his name and disowned the film. Which leads us to the final reason this movie nicely fits the cult film mould – there’s a wide variety of quality on display.

The script, by, again, one of Hollywood’s greater writers, is not terrible most of the time. It bears the mark of that typically polysyllabic dialogue Chayefsky was so good at. It matches nicely with the characters too, who are all professors and scientists, people who might actually talk with the sort of Shakespearean aplomb the people in the film do. It’s not the perfect match Network is though. Some of the actors stumble over the kaleidoscopic language, which immediately transforms the vibrant dialogue to stiff thudding words. The main characters do alright though, which is the most important feature surely. William Hurt sells his role fairly well. He convincingly comes across as a rampant psychedelic scientist.

The problem might be the point in which Altered States becomes an actual science fiction film. Before then, it is almost more of a character piece, a documentation of one man’s self-induced psychedelic therapy. Almost half the movie is this journey through the main character’s subconscious, until suddenly it’s not. At that point there’s a harsh shift and it becomes, of all things, a monster movie that maybe draws on American Werewolf in London a little too much. The first act has all this wonderful trip imagery with multi-eyed goats’ heads, blood, Catholic imagery, and more. Then the main character starts taking this special mushroom, featured in what looks more like an ayahuasca ceremony. This gives him some impressive visions surrounding his wife, but that gives way and we just see his trips through other people’s eyes after that. This is obviously not as interesting, but the script was certainly counting on the science fiction twist to regain audience interest. Which it did, in some ways. Unfortunately I’m not convinced these were the intended ways.

The premise is that this new drug allows the main character to access deep tissue genetic memory. This isn’t a bad idea, until it starts affecting his DNA and he becomes a were-missing-link. There’s a pretty good make-up effect that culminates with a tiny nude man covered in fur and a monkey mask running around yelping and causing mayhem. It’s incredibly accidentally funny. Weirdly enough the biggest problem with this isn’t even the concept. It’s not the visuals either. Sure the effect occasionally looks a little goofy, but some of the camerawork is impressive. The problem is the goddamned sound effects. This movie is filled with some of the silliest, least convincing, most distracting monkey sound effects you could imagine. It feels like just some guy doing his best monkey impersonation. Realistically that’s probably what it was. Well that dude may have impressed his friends with his silly monkey sounds but onscreen they brutally undermine any chance the film had at still being taken seriously at this point.

After he convinces his scientist friends that this is happening, the movie enters its endgame stage. The monkey barely sticks around, which is pretty odd from a pacing perspective. The next time he shoots up in the float-tank he doesn’t turn into a monkey. He morphs into….something else. It looks like a big boil grows out of the side of his head. This kills the camera and creates a crazy light show and whirlpool/interdimensional portal thing. This is followed by a long scene that read as “Ken Williams has seen 2001: A Space Odyssey too you guys.” It’s a shame because the imagery earlier on in the film had been quite original, but at this point it’s just close-ups of things that look like cells and whirling colours.

Then the most damning part of the movie happens. It doesn’t end. We get an overlong scene of everyone responding to these events. Then the main character and his estranged wife settle in for the night. The main character of course begins to transform again. Basically we go through the whole rigmarole again, but this time with the conclusion to the main character arc tagged onto the end. There’s no reason these scenes couldn’t have been combined to create one much less frustrating whole. Instead the movie drags on too long and retreads too much ground.

Which isn’t to say I particularly disliked the film. Which is part of why it’s considered a cult film surely. Despite massive pacing problems in the last act the film is fun. Chayefsky’s script certainly has excellent moments. The first three trips, besides containing the image used on the cover of Godflesh’s Streetcleaner, are visually unique and well put together. They feel like they legitimately belie information about the main character’s psychology. If they’d found a way to tie this approach to the last act (maybe showing the ape-man’s distorted psychedelic view of the modern city), it might’ve felt like less of a jump. Instead the two chunks of the film only feel tangentially connected by a lazy bit of foreshadowing. Even the overlong and derivative last act has its moments; it just doesn’t make for a good whole or satisfying conclusion. It’s a shame. There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on, and the topics at hand are interesting. I can also see why Paddy Chayefsky would disown it. It’s clearly not up to his incredibly masterful standard. However I’ll definitely be seeking out his book, in the hopes that it will present an improved version of this story. It’s easy to see this working better as a book.

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Harry Edmundson-Cornell is obsessed with comics and film and writing, and he fancies himself a bit of an artist. He's dabbled in freelance video production, writing, design, 3D modelling, and artistic commissions. He mainly uses Tumblr to keep track of what he's watching and reading and listening to. Occasionally he uses it to post original works. You can find his email and junk there too, if you want to hire him or send him hate-mail.

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