As director Ken Russell channels his inner David Cronenberg, it’s not surprising to see that the director of Tommy can’t actually pull together an engaging horror. One that relies on the vivid dreamscapes and imagery that comes from the altered states of mind Edward Jessup (William Hurt) puts himself through. His intense desire to uncover the secrets that can be found through tripping on a variety of different drugs whilst in an isolation tank lead to horrific results, a lengthy PSA on why we should never drop acid whilst in a bath. With the debut of both Hurt and Drew Barrymore, Altered States has a superb deal of talent behind it, but lacks a consistent drive for much of its running time.
It’s a real let down, never managing to build itself up in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s borrowing heavily from the earlier works of David Cronenberg. A professor who studies schizophrenia finds himself obsessed with what seems to be a need and desire to open his third eye. To experience just about anything feasibly possible, by taking a bunch of psychedelics and throwing himself into chambers where only Bob Balaban can hear him. Frightening, I know, for a premise it’s rather creative, but Altered States is shamefully poor, it leaves a lot to be desired. Russell’s style and themes lie elsewhere, and compared to the likes of Tommy or The Devils, this early 80s horror can offer little in the way of reputable commentary on anything it wishes to tackle.
With the main problem being the director himself, it leads to an excess of problems elsewhere. Clumsy and very lengthy dream sequences and drug trips don’t so much hammer the point home but completely oversell what little nuance could be found within these moments. These visuals aren’t even that interesting, a real shame considering how easy it would have been to make these moments, at the very least, interesting. Instead they come across as trying too hard, Hurt features in a great deal of these scenes, where he stares into the barrel of the camera whilst weird things go on around him. It’s all rather drab, nothing of actual note beside the occasionally forgettable oddity.
Altered States is, to put it lightly, a complete letdown and a true waste of time. Hurt has a solid enough performance and holds it all together, but some moments come across as underwhelming, whilst others are presented with earnest pretentiousness. There’s no balance or intriguing pacing, with underdeveloped characters, a desire to replicate the more popular tropes of the genre, and, ultimately, some rather clumsy direction from a man who has directed some real classics elsewhere.