Flashback Friday: Altered States

By on July 18, 2014
Altered States

Welcome to another new column I hope to do on a regular basis: “Flashback Friday,” in which I clue you all in on a movie I love that is either relatively unknown or underappreciated in some way, shape or form.

For instance, maybe it’s a cult classic that hasn’t had a wide release in theaters or a foreign film that is lesser-known in the States, or something that hasn’t yet received an official release on Blu-Ray, DVD, or isn’t readily available on an online/home streaming service like Netflix or Hulu.

In those latter cases, I will let you know where you can find it, if it’s even available, but in some cases, you might well have to go the old-school route and seek it out on the dreaded VHS format, or watch it on YouTube or something like that.

In short, if I can find it, I’ll let you know where, but be prepared to occasionally do some hunting. Sometimes to find those hidden gems, you have to dig a little. That’s sort of the point of them being hidden, you know? It’s also the point of this column: to shine a light on the diamonds in the rough.

Let’s get started, shall we?

Blair Brown and William Hurt star in "Altered States." Courtesy of Warner Brothers.com

Blair Brown and William Hurt star in “Altered States.”
Courtesy of Warner Brothers.com

For my first column, I wanted to lead with something a little more readily available: the cult flick “Altered States.” Released in 1980, the film tells the bizarre tale of Dr. Eddie Jessup, a Harvard scientist who is fascinated- most would say fixated- on finding other states of consciousness, which he feels exist concurrently with our own. Tn order to reach them, we must access them by non-conventional means.

To that end, he experiments with sensory deprivation tanks, hallucinogenic drugs and mixtures used in spiritual ceremonies by obscure tribes in Mexico. Perhaps, needless to say, the experiments take a big toll on the slightly-mad doctor, resulting in some decidedly unpredictable results, including some wild visions and reversion back to a sort of neo-primal state, which cause some major issues on campus.

If this all sounds vaguely familiar, that must mean you were a fan of the show Fringe,” which also featured this same gambit over the course of the series, as various characters also used similar techniques to access forgotten and/or suppressed memories, including the use of sensory deprivation tanks and hallucinatory substances. The main science lab was also located at Harvard, so that show owes a huge debt to this film. If you like “Fringe,” you’ll love this, to be sure.

The connections don’t end there, in fact, the film co-stars Blair Brown, who played a recurring character, Nina Sharp, on “Fringe.” Quite the hottie in her day, Brown plays one of the most singularly appealing female characters in film history in “Altered States,” IMHO. As smart as she is attractive, her character, Emily, gives Jessup a run for his money in the intelligence department, and she is one of the only things that helps him stay grounded when things take a turn for the weird- not that it entirely does him (or her) any good at times.

Dr. Jessup is played by highly-respected Oscar-winning actor William Hurt, perhaps best-known for the films “Body Heat,” “The Big Chill,” “Broadcast News,” “Lost in Space,” “A History of Violence,” “A.I.” and more recently, the TV show “Damages.” He won an Oscar for “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and was also nominated for “News” and “Violence.” Finally, he’s in another of my all-time favorites, a movie I’ll be tackling in this column before too long, the phenomenal “Dark City.” In short, he’s one of the best actors out there, bar none.

"Altered States" marked teh motion picture debut of Oscar-winning actor William Hurt. Courtesy of Warner Brothers.com

“Altered States” marked the motion picture debut of Oscar-winning actor William Hurt.
Courtesy of Warner Brothers.com

Even more remarkable, “Altered States” marks his motion picture debut, and what a debut it is. Hurt just plain is this character, and right from the jump, at that. I don’t know how many actors could handle the extremely verbose, oft-rambling monologues he’s given here even well into their careers, much less right off the bat like he does.

As crazy as he gets- and he gets plenty crazy, I assure you- you never for one minute believe you’re watching an actor playing a role. You’re watching Dr. Jessup, not Hurt, period. Daniel Day-Lewis has nothing on William Hurt, let me tell you, and I love me some Daniel Day-Lewis.

The co-stars are pretty formidable in their own right. There’s Bob Balaban, as Jessup’s nearly-as-crazy assistant, Arthur Rosenberg, who’s no stranger to the weird and wild, having starred in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “2010,” and- um, does “Seinfeld” count?

There’s also Charles Haid, of “Hill Street Blues” fame, as Mason Parrish, the hilariously-disapproving co-conspirator in Jessup’s experiments, who was also in another of my cult fave films, Clive Barker’s “Nightbreed.” (That film, which I’ll be covering soon, is due for a Blu-Ray release in October, so look out for that!)

And, and who’s that making her own motion picture debut as Jessup’s daughter? Why it’s little Drew Barrymore! Just when you thought this movie could not get any more awesome. But it so does, because another thing the film is famous for its then-groundbreaking effects, by the legendary Dick Smith, of “The Exorcist,” “Scanners,” “Taxi Driver” and “Death Becomes Her” fame. Ever seen that partially-animated video for “Take on Me” by the cheesy 80’s band a-ha? Totally swiped some of its ideas from this movie’s climatic scene. As did MTV back in the day for one of its famous animated “bumpers,” aka the things you see going into and coming out of commercials.

"Altered States" features special effects from Oscar-winner Dick Smith, of "The Exorcist" fame. Courtesy of Warner Brothers.com

“Altered States” features special effects from Oscar-winner Dick Smith, of “The Exorcist” fame.
Courtesy of Warner Brothers.com

Nor is “Fringe” the only show or movie to be inspired by the movie. The work of David Cronenberg (particularly “Videodrome,” “Naked Lunch” and “eXistenZ”), Oliver Stone (particularly “The Doors” and “Natural Born Killers”), Adrian Lyne (“Jacob’s Ladder”), and cult film icons Stuart Gordon (“The Re-Animator,” “From Beyond”) and Frank Henenlotter (“Brain Damage”) also owe a debt of gratitude to this film.

The director is Ken Russell, who’s known for making pretty out-there movies, like the film adaptation of The Who’s rock opera “Tommy,” which has to be seen to believed, and cult classics like the controversial “The Devils,” “Listzomania” (yep, the inspiration for the Phoenix hit, and featuring Who singer Roger Daltrey as composer Franz Liszt and Beatles drummer Ringo Starr as the Pope!), “Gothic” (about the night that Mary Shelley was inspired to write “Frankenstein”) and the Bram Stoker adaptation “The Lair of the White Worm” (starring a then little-known young actor named Hugh Grant- maybe you’ve heard of him?).

Dr. Jessup reverts to his primal state in an inspired scene from "Altered States." Courtesy of Warner Brothers.com

Dr. Jessup reverts to his primal state in an inspired scene from “Altered States.”
Courtesy of Warner Brothers.com

“Altered States” was nominated for two Oscars, including one for the intriguing score by Pulitzer-prize-winning composer John Corigliano. It also won the Saturn award for Best Special Effects for Dick Smith from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films, and was nominated for Best Science Fiction Film, Best Director, and Best Screenplay, which was written by Oscar-winner (for the classic “Network”), Paddy Chayefsky, adapting his novel of the same name. You might have also heard the film’s dialogue sampled in the song “Psalm 69” as well. (Warning: Explicit lyrical content!)

All of which is to say, it’s a totally awesome film everyone should see, especially if you like your entertainment slightly left-of-center, and appreciate films that delve into ideas dealing with philosophy, science, spirituality and the like. It’s a hypnotic, absorbing, fascinating watch that awards patience and is smarter than about 95% of what comes out of Hollywood these days, so by all means, check it out!

“Altered States” is readily available on DVD and Blu-Ray.

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About Mark Trammell

Mark Trammell is the resident entertainment critic at UAB, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he is also a Graduate Student and does a vid-cast movie review show. He is a life-long fan of films and has a pretty whacked-out, all-over-the-place movie collection that would give most sane people pause. He loves horror movies and Disney flicks and isn't entirely sure there is a difference. He one day hopes to put his money where his mouth is and inflict his own perverse vision on society, entirely so that he can tell people who ask: "If you think you can do better, why don't you make a movie yourself?" to shut up.
  • Haley Mauree Townsend

    Well I know what movie I want to watch this weekend. I am a complete Fringe fan so I absolutely must check this out.

    • Mark Trammell

      If you like “Fringe,” you should love this! Although be forewarned, it’s got some fairly graphic stuff in it if you’re easily offended.

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