The Cult Corner: Altered States (1980)

by robotGEEK

"The most terrifying experiment in the history of science is out of control...and the subject is himself"

I forget what the reason was or how it was brought up, but recently Altered States was mentioned on my Instagram (@robotgeek) and it got me thinking that I hadn't seen it in ages. I grabbed my old snapcase DVD and threw it on that night and was completely floored by this experience for a number of reasons. First and foremost, I was floored by how good this was. Secondly, that I hadn't remembered a thing about it, and third, that nobody ever talks about it, which is kind of shocking to me.

This is one of those film experiences that I simply adore. The kind that sort of shocks you in a good way and reminds you why you love movies so much. Altered States, if I had to compare, reminded me a lot of David Cronenberg's The Fly (1986), a bit of The Exorcist and also Brainstorm (1983); a sort of hybrid of body horror and science fiction, even though this came out many years before The Fly. Everything about this production is top-notch. William Hurt was good and hungry (you can tell), Bob Balaban is always a treat to watch when he pops up in films from this period (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 2010), but the real scene-stealer was Blair Brown who absolutely delivers a knockout performance as the long-suffering wife. 

I think that one thing that dramatically elevates this film to a much higher level overall is the absolutely stunning cinematography by the legendary Jordan Cronenweth (Blade Runner). It's an absolute stunner to look at with every shot a breathtaking work of art. Coupled with director Ken Russell's direction, it's a masterclass in visual storytelling. It's so surprising to me that it didn't leave a stronger impression on me when I originally watched it the first time around years ago. It's now a personal favorite. I actually immediately got online to upgrade to blu ray but decided that I'm perfectly happy with the grainy look of the DVD. I feel it adds to the aesthetic. While I have seen a few of Russell's films such as Lair of the White Worm, Gothic, Crimes of Passion and The Devils, none of them really stood out to me in any fundamental way other than thinking they were strange films. I guess it's time to revisit them and see how I feel about them today. 

Wonderfully trippy, gorgeously executed with some stellar performances, stunning visuals and a riveting subject matter, Altered States is an overlooked gem that begs to be discovered. 

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