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Altered States is a 1980 American science-fiction horror film directed by Ken Russell based on the novel of the same name by playwright and screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky. The film was adapted from Chayefsky's only novel and is his final screenplay. Both the novel and the film are based on John C. Lilly's sensory deprivation research conducted in isolation tanks under the influence of psychoactive drugs like mescaline, ketamine, and LSD.

Altered States
Altered states.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byKen Russell
Produced by
Written bySidney Aaron
Based onAltered States
by Paddy Chayefsky
Music byJohn Corigliano
CinematographyJordan S. Cronenweth
Edited byStuart Baird
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
  • December 25, 1980 (1980-12-25)
Running time
103 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$15 million[1]
Box office$19.9 million[2]

It marked the film debut of William Hurt and Drew Barrymore. Chayefsky was credited as a screenwriter for the film using the pseudonym Sidney Aaron, his actual first and middle names.

The film score was composed by John Corigliano (with Christopher Keene conducting). The film was nominated for the Academy Awards for Best Original Score and Best Sound Mixing.



Edward Jessup is a 1970s psychopathologist who, while studying schizophrenia, begins to think that "our other states of consciousness are as real as our waking states." Edward begins experimenting with sensory deprivation using a flotation tank, aided by two like-minded researchers, Parrish and Rosenberg. At a faculty party he meets fellow "whiz kid" and biological anthropologist Emily, and the two eventually marry.

Seven years later, Edward and Emily have two daughters, are on the brink of divorce, and reunite with the couple who first introduced them. When Edward hears of a Mexican tribe that experiences shared illusion states, he travels to Mexico to participate in what is apparently an Ayahuasca Ceremony. During the walk into the bush his guide says that the indigenous tribe they are meeting works with Amanita muscaria, which they are collecting for next year's ceremonies. The tribe call one of the ingredients of the mixture they use "First Flower." An indigenous elder is seen with Banisteriopsis caapi root in his hand before cutting Edward's hand, adding blood to the mixture he is preparing. Immediately after consuming the mixture, Edward experiences bizarre, intense hallucinations. He returns to the U.S. with a tincture and continues taking it to trigger altered states of consciousness.

When toxic concentrations of the substance make increased dosage dangerous, Edward returns to sensory deprivation, believing it will enhance the effects of the substance at his current dose. Repairing a disused tank in a medical school, Edward uses it to experience a series of increasingly drastic visions, including one of early Hominidae. Monitored by his colleagues, Edward insists that his visions have "externalized". Emerging from the tank, his mouth bloody, frantically writing notes because he is unable to speak, Edward insists on being X-rayed before he "reconstitutes." A radiologist inspecting the X-rays says they belong to a gorilla.

In later experiments, Edward experiences actual, physical biological devolution. At one stage he emerges from the isolation tank as a feral and curiously small-statured, light-skinned caveman, going on a rampage before returning to his natural form. Despite his colleagues' concern, Edward stubbornly continues.

In the final experiment, Edward experiences a more profound regression, transforming into an amorphous mass of conscious, primordial matter. An energy wave released from the experiment stuns Edward's colleagues and destroys his tank. Emily arrives to find a swirling maelstrom where the tank had been. She searches the vortex for Edward, finding him as he is on the brink of becoming a non-physical form of proto-consciousness and possibly disappearing from our version of reality altogether.

His friends bring Edward home, hoping that the transformations will end. Watched over by Emily, Edward begins to regress again, the transformations no longer requiring intake of "first flower" or sensory deprivation. Urging Edward to fight the change, Emily grabs his hand, immediately being enveloped by the primordial energy emanating from Edward. The sight of his wife apparently being consumed by the energy stirs the human consciousness in Edward's devolving form. He fights the transformation and returns to his human form. In the final scene, Edward embraces Emily, and she returns to normal.



The film's original director was Arthur Penn, who resigned[1] after a dispute with Chayefsky, according to Mad as Hell, a 2014 book by Dave Itzkoff.[3] Special effects expert John Dykstra was replaced by Bran Ferren, who is credited for Special Visual Effects in the front titles, and created the VFX actually used in the film. The film was produced originally at Columbia Pictures, which would later end its participation with it, before Warner Bros. bought the rights. Chayefsky later withdrew his name from the project; film critic Janet Maslin, in her review of the film, thought it "easy to guess why":[4]

It's easy to guess why [screenwriter Chayefsky] and [director Ken Russell] didn't see eye to eye. The direction, without being mocking or campy, treats outlandish material so matter-of-factly that it often has a facetious ring. The screenplay, on the other hand, cries out to be taken seriously, as it addresses, with no particular sagacity, the death of God and the origins of man.

Film critic Richard Corliss attributed Chayefsky's disavowal of the film to distress over "the intensity of the performances and the headlong pace at which the actors read his dialogue."[5]

Russell maintained that he changed almost nothing in Chayefsky's script, and called the writer "impossible to please."[6]

Itzkoff's book chronicles the making of Altered States and claims that Russell, objecting to Chayefsky's interference, had the writer banned from the set. Chayefsky reportedly tried to have Russell removed as director, but by then the film was already well under way, and the studio already had replaced one director (Penn). Chayefsky elected to remove his name from the credits, even though he was paid $1 million for it and it was his first screenplay after winning an Academy Award for Network.


Box OfficeEdit

Altered States grossed $19.9 million at the box office[2] against a production budget of $15 million.[1]

Critical responseEdit

On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 86% based on 43 reviews, and an average rating of 6.8/10. The website's critical consensus reads "Extraordinarily daring for a Hollywood film, Altered States attacks the viewer with its inventive, aggressive mix of muddled sound effects and visual pyrotechnics".[7] On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 58 out of 100, based on 13 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews".[8]

Janet Maslin of The New York Times termed the film a "methodically paced fireworks display, exploding into delirious special-effects sequences at regular intervals, and maintaining an eerie calm the rest of the time. If it is not wholly visionary at every juncture, it is at least dependably — even exhilaratingly — bizarre. Its strangeness, which borders cheerfully on the ridiculous, is its most enjoyable feature."[4] She also called it "in fine shape as long as it revels in its own craziness, making no claims on the viewer's reason. But when it asks you to believe that what you're watching may really be happening, and to wonder what it means, it is asking far too much. By the time it begins straining for an ending both happy and hysterical, it has lost all of its mystery, and most of its magic."[4]

Richard Corliss began his review of the film thus:[5]

This one has everything: sex, violence, comedy, thrills, tenderness. It's an anthology and apotheosis of American pop movies: Frankenstein, Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Nutty Professor, 2001, Alien, Love Story. It opens at fever pitch and then starts soaring—into genetic fantasy, into a precognitive dream of delirium and delight. Madness is its subject and substance, style and spirit. The film changes tone, even form, with its hero's every new mood and mutation. It expands and contracts with his mind until both almost crack. It keeps threatening to go bonkers, then makes good on its threat, and still remains as lucid as an aerialist on a high wire. It moves with the loping energy of a crafty psychopath, or of film makers gripped with the potential of blowing the moviegoer's mind out through his eyes and ears. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Altered States.

Corliss calls the film a "dazzling piece of science fiction"; he recognizes the film's dialogue as clearly Chayefsky's, with characters that are "endlessly reflective and articulate, spitting out litanies of adjectives, geysers of abstract nouns, chemical chains of relative clauses", dialogue that's a "welcome antidote to all those recent...movies in which brutal characters speak only words of one syllable and four letters."[5] But the film is ultimately Russell's, who inherited a "cast of unknowns" chosen by its original director and "gets an erotic, neurotic charge from the talking-heads scenes that recall Penn at his best."[5]

Pauline Kael, on the other hand, wrote that the "grotesquely inspired" combination of "Russell, with his show-biz-Catholic glitz mysticism, and Chayefsky, with his show-biz-Jewish ponderousness" results in an "aggressively silly picture" that "isn't really enjoyable."[9]

John C. Lilly liked the film, and noted the following in an Omni magazine interview published in January 1983:

The scene in which the scientist becomes cosmic energy and his wife grabs him and brings him back to human form is straight out of my Dyadic Cyclone (1976)...As for the scientist's regression into an ape-like being, the late Dr. Craig Enright, who started me on K (ketamine) while taking a trip with me here by the isolation tank, suddenly "became" a chimp, jumping up and down and hollering for twenty-five minutes. Watching him, I was frightened. I asked him later, "Where the hell were you?" He said, "I became a pre-hominid, and I was in a tree. A leopard was trying to get me. So I was trying to scare him away." The manuscript of The Scientist (1978) was in the hands of Bantam, the publishers. The head of Bantam called and said, "Paddy Chayefsky would like to read your manuscript. Will you give him your permission?" I said, "Only if he calls me and asks permission." He didn't call. But he probably read the manuscript.[10]

In Ready for My Close-Up!: Great Movie Speeches (2007), screenwriter Denny Martin Flinn called Chayefsky's screenplay "brilliant" and selected Emily's speech as "Chayefsky's last great take on life and love."[11]

According to TV Guide, Basil Dearden's 1963 film The Mind Benders "is the direct predecessor of Altered States."[12]

Awards and honorsEdit

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c Review of Altered States from Variety Archived 2008-06-27 at the Wayback Machine
  2. ^ a b Altered States at Box Office Mojo. Amazon.
  3. ^ Itzkoff, David (February 2014). Mad as Hell. New York: Henry Holt & Co. p. 211. ISBN 978-0-8050-9569-2. Retrieved 29 August 2017.
  4. ^ a b c Review of Altered States, a December 25, 1980 article in The New York Times
  5. ^ a b c d Invasion of the Mind Snatcher, a December 1980 review by Richard Corliss in Time
  6. ^ "A Second Look: Ken Russell's 'Altered States' remains visceral". Los Angeles Times. July 14, 2012.
  7. ^ "Altered States (1980)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved March 22, 2018.
  8. ^ "Altered States Reviews". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved March 22, 2018.
  9. ^ Kael, Pauline (1984). Taking It All In. New York: Holt, Rinhart and Winstone. pp. 127–132. ISBN 0-03-069361-6.
  10. ^
  11. ^ Flinn, Denny Martin (2007). Ready for My Close-up!: Great Movie Speeches. Hal Leonard Corporation. p. 154. ISBN 0879103507.
  12. ^ "The Mind Benders Review". Retrieved 2014-03-12.
  13. ^ "The 53rd Academy Awards (1981) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2011-10-07.

External linksEdit