The thing that’s so fascinating about the guy is the fact that he’s able to land upon any topic and make it utterly engaging – Savage Messiah is ample proof of that, regardless of what you think about biopics.
Anyway, after focusing on the arts in all of its variegated forms for just about a decade, the beginning of the eighties found Russell enamored of a script whose author soon disavowed it. Even with that strange scenario – or maybe because of it – the director set about turning a story about academic exercises in sensory deprivation and a desire for the primitive into a weirdly psychedelic and devilish hour and change, calling it Altered States.
Psychedelic perhaps hints in the wrong direction – although the scene with a crucified, horned figure and swirling lights might not be better described by any single word. There are drugs involved, but only after a professor (William Hurt in his first big screen role) heads to some out of the way, aboriginal ceremony, drinks blood and brings the potion back to his basement lab are the substance’s powers reveled. But since this professor has Bob Balaban watching things, there’s no chance of anything going wrong.
Of course, an early mishap points to the film’s end.
Along the way, though, Hurt’s character woos a fine women, invests himself in his studies and keeps on taking drugs, but not for recreational purposes. See how psychedelic could be misleading if applied haphazardly?
Anyway, the experiments persist with Hurt’s character increasingly seeing side affects well after the substance was to have worn off. It’s not exactly a werewolf scenario, but there are a few times that Hurt’s character gets all hairy and grows an extra appendage.
What makes this all palatable, since it’s surely patently ridiculous, is the tone Altered States strikes early on, to say nothing of Hurt’s masterful portrayal of what ostensibly amounts to a mad scientist.
There are certainly moments of visual chicanery meant to keep viewers in their seats and attached to the mounting action. On occasion, there’s a bit of heavy handed rhetoric, but not too much. And certainly nothing that takes away from the dynamic Hurt strikes with a bevy of folks warning him about his actions.
Whatever the results were to be, though, Russell was sure it’d translate to film. And it did.