18 May 2008 | zetes
Bizarre and eerie
Bizarre cinematic head-trip that is far better and more entertaining than anyone could guess from a description. I put it on my Netflix queue without realizing it was directed by Ken Russell. If I had seen that earlier, I would have avoided it. Thankfully I didn't. It contains everything that is good about Russell, that is, his crazy imagery, and none of the bad stuff. That is, it's not an enormous bore. The script was written by Paddy Chayefsky, based on his own novel. Not the writer you would associate with horror or sci-fi, which is the proper genres to which Altered States belongs. He disowned the film before he even saw a cut of it, despite the fact that Russell was contractually obligated not to change a word of the script. The greatest asset of the film is the fantastic acting. William Hurt makes his screen debut as a mad scientist, a Harvard professor, actually, who is experimenting with sensory deprivation, mixed with some choice hallucinogens. He hopes to lose his modern mind in the sensory deprivation tank and regress to a primitive state. Unfortunately, some mushrooms that he finds in Mexico help him regress not only mentally, but physiologically. Blair Brown plays his estranged and worried wife, and Charles Haid and Bob Balaban (love the Balaban!) play colleagues who help Hurt do his experiments. The plot is silly, but it's legitimately eerie and frightening, thanks to Russell's surprisingly excellent direction. The film ends up in territory very reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I thought it all worked pretty well. Drew Barrymore makes her film debut at age 5, and also keep an eye out for John Larroquette.