“Emily’s quite content to go on with this life. She insists she’s in love with me – whatever that is. What she means is she prefers the senseless pain we inflict on each other to the pain we would otherwise inflict on ourselves. But I’m not afraid of that solitary pain. In fact, if I don’t strip myself of all this clatter and clutter and ridiculous ritual, I shall go out of my fucking mind.”
I’ll bet William Hurt has a career because he’s a good at auditioning via monologue. He’s not necessarily great at interacting with other performers–I can’t imagine him batting a screwball comedy routine back and forth–but give him long sentences with precise diction and he’ll blow you away. Hurt has a way of speaking where he’s almost throwing all his lines away, spitting them out quickly and perfunctorily only as a concession to someone else in the room. He’s not focused on what he’s saying because he’s caught in the feeling that inspired the words. He talks like he’s distracted, listening to something only he can hear. There’s something graceful and a little sad about it; it’s as though we’re empathizing and observing him at the same time. I’ve loved his ability to ground and humanize films like The Village and A.I. (not to mention delivering pages of exposition with that same evocative intensity), but Altered States is definitely the finest performance I’ve seen from him. His manner is perfect for the part of Edward Jessup, a driven scientist who only occasionally realizes other people exist.
Altered States is one of the most original horror films I’ve ever seen, although in many ways it anticipates Cronenberg’s The Fly, which, if there was a direct influence, perfected what Altered set out to do. Rather than looking forward, however, it makes more sense to me to look backwards to one of the founders of modern horror, H. P. Lovecraft. No, there are no tentacles here, no giant monsters, no expeditions to the other side of the world; but the beating heart of Lovecraftian horror isn’t visual or geographical at all. It’s the connection between the internal and the cosmic. Jessup goes to Mexico at one point but his real journey is into himself. There he finds a door, a door unlocked by sensory deprivation and hallucinogenic drugs, and behind the door are energies vast and unknowable. One is reminded of the end of The Incredible Shrinking Man–or better still, the 50s Corman flick X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes. That one was also about a scientist who found himself seeing more… and more… and more… Science is potent material for horror precisely because it so often seems like a voyage into the unknown to discover there the truth of our own ignorance and insignificance and human frailty. What is the personal, human scale against the crushing depths of the deepest seas, or the vast mysteries that lie beyond the event horizon of a dark hole? Or, in this film, billions of years of genetic memory?
In another sense, Altered States is a werewolf movie. Nearly all horror is about transformation to one degree or another, about duality and the Narcissus myth–exploration of the self, fear of the self–and nowhere is this more evident than in werewolf stories, where the troublesome aspects of the human soul, the animus, the rage, come to the surface and become horribly visible. What makes Altered States so nerve-wracking throughout is that there is no curse to force the wolf’s appearance. Jessup returns again and again to the black tank, this modern sarcophagus from which horrors emerge, simply because he wants to–because the search for truth outweighs any hold his family or friends or reason might have on him. In The Fly this behavior is a drug metaphor, where Brundle feels enervated by and addicted to his trips through his machine. In Altered States I think the meaning is a broader notion of selfishness and self-obsessiveness. The movie would be completely different if you split Jessup into a guinea pig and and overbearing scientist running the experiments–in fact, it wouldn’t work at all. But as one person experimenting on himself, endangering himself despite all warnings, Jessup is at once a tragic and monstrous figure, a man whose skin bulges horribly and painfully and yet who is fascinated by his own mutability. His wife, meanwhile, is simply tragic, although in a sense she mirrors his inability to refrain from engaging in dangerous behavior. For him, it’s opening his mind to whatever forces lie beyond/within; for her, it’s loving him. In a way, the ending is one of the most romantic in all of cinema. “I don’t want to frighten you, Emily, but what I’m trying to tell you is that moment of terror is a real and living horror, living and growing within me now, and the only thing that keeps it from devouring me is you.” What a beautiful sentiment.
Two parts of the movie’s pedigree are important to note. First, the screenplay was adapted (under a pseudonym) from his own novel by Paddy Chayefsky, who was probably one of the greatest screenwriters ever. Here he wrings maximum tension from a bare minimum of actual action, and crafts what might be some of the finest scientific babble ever produced–all while sewing a love story to a horror story at the common seam where existential terror provokes the need for others. It’s a remarkable achievement, and an intelligent and absorbing script.
Second, the movie was directed by Ken Russell, probably the only filmmaker capable of achieving this film’s phenomenal integration of artistic abstraction with narrative realism. There are a number of sequences throughout the film which seek to portray Jessup’s inner state while under the influence of drugs or sensory isolation. Shot and edited with precision, these rapid-fire montages work to express a subjective state of consciousness in a way that entirely bypasses any rational viewing. Images flicker by, almost too fast to see, demonstrating a bevy of special effects and cinematic techniques–riotous color, extreme close-ups, abstract computer animations, and my favorite, the use of actual sparking fireworks to imitate the interior light show of a drug trip. Equally important, Russell intensifies the effect of these sequences by building scenes around them that contrast, especially from an auditory perspective. For every rapid-fire montage of bizarre imagery, there’s a scene where all we see is the exterior of the tank while Jessup describes his visions over the intercom. Likewise, Russell makes the unusual choice to mix the level (volume) of the movie’s many instances of overlapping dialogue evenly, so that it becomes difficult to ‘pick out’ and follow any individual in the cacophony. A few scenes of that and we begin to sympathize with Edward’s desire to isolate himself from the outside world. Any introvert knows that other people are chaos, and the only thing you can truly, comfortingly predict is your own mind. But what happens when the mind itself becomes the wellspring of terror and unhappiness? Drowning in one’s own reflection, one either reaches out for rescue or goes down for good. After the last line reveals Eddie’s choice, the film cuts to credits, pulling us abruptly out of an absorbing experience, as if we’ve been taken out of the tank too soon… or just in time.