Altered States (1980)

R | 103 mins | Drama, Science fiction | 25 December 1980

Director:

Ken Russell

Writer:

Paddy Chayevsky

Producer:

Howard Gottfried

Cinematographer:

Jordan Cronenweth

Editor:

Eric Jenkins

Production Designer:

Richard McDonald

Production Company:

Warner Bros.
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HISTORY

The summary and note for this entry were completed with participation from the AFI Academic Network. Summary and note were written by participant Julia Zelman, a student at Boston University, with Ray Carney as academic advisor.

Paddy Chayefsky based the screenplay of Altered States on his only novel (which shares the film’s title), published by Harper & Row in 1978. As noted in the film’s studio production notes, Altered States drew heavily on the works of John C. Lilly (1915-2001), the inventor of the isolation tank, whose book, The Center of the Cyclone (Julian Press, 1972), describes his hallucinations of human and primeval ancestors.
       An 11 Apr 1978 LAT news item reported that Chayefsky had recently turned in the screenplay to Columbia in April. Controversy arose almost immediately. According to a 31 May 1978 Var news item, New York psychiatrist Jeffrey Lieberman sued for misappropriation of ownership of the novel, for which he claimed co-authorship. Although he was unsuccessful, Columbia meanwhile was struggling with further pre-production hurdles. According to a 30 Jan 1979 DV news item, Arthur Penn was replaced by Ken Russell as director. Although a 4 Oct 1979 HR news item reported that John Dykstra of Apogee, Inc. would create special effects for the film, he was later replaced by Bran Ferren. According to a 12 Mar 1979 HR news item, requirements for complicated special effects caused the proposed budget to swell to $19 million from $12 million. 12 and 14 Mar 1979 DV news items reported that Columbia’s president ...

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The summary and note for this entry were completed with participation from the AFI Academic Network. Summary and note were written by participant Julia Zelman, a student at Boston University, with Ray Carney as academic advisor.

Paddy Chayefsky based the screenplay of Altered States on his only novel (which shares the film’s title), published by Harper & Row in 1978. As noted in the film’s studio production notes, Altered States drew heavily on the works of John C. Lilly (1915-2001), the inventor of the isolation tank, whose book, The Center of the Cyclone (Julian Press, 1972), describes his hallucinations of human and primeval ancestors.
       An 11 Apr 1978 LAT news item reported that Chayefsky had recently turned in the screenplay to Columbia in April. Controversy arose almost immediately. According to a 31 May 1978 Var news item, New York psychiatrist Jeffrey Lieberman sued for misappropriation of ownership of the novel, for which he claimed co-authorship. Although he was unsuccessful, Columbia meanwhile was struggling with further pre-production hurdles. According to a 30 Jan 1979 DV news item, Arthur Penn was replaced by Ken Russell as director. Although a 4 Oct 1979 HR news item reported that John Dykstra of Apogee, Inc. would create special effects for the film, he was later replaced by Bran Ferren. According to a 12 Mar 1979 HR news item, requirements for complicated special effects caused the proposed budget to swell to $19 million from $12 million. 12 and 14 Mar 1979 DV news items reported that Columbia’s president Frank Price dropped the film and Warner Bros. took over.
       Shortly after principal photography began, Chayefsky left the film citing disagreements over Russell’s interpretation, and he refused credit as screenwriter, according to a 5 Jan 1980 LAT article. As no other writers worked on the script and, as reported in a 19 Jul 1979 LAT article, none of the dialogue had changed, this withdrawal left an unacceptable void in the credits, as WGA rules require that films must have an onscreen writer’s credit. The onscreen credit problem was resolved by listing Chayefsky under the pseudonym, Sidney Aaron, which was his real first and middle names, while an opening title card reads “From the novel by Paddy Chayefsky.” Altered States marked the last feature film of Chayefsky, who died in 1981.
       A 21 Mar 1979 Var news item reported that portions of the film were shot at Sunset-Gower Studios. A 26 Mar 1979 DV news item, reporting that filming began on 23 Mar, stated that The Burbank Studios were also used. According to studio production notes and a 1979 studio press release at AMPAS Library, portions of the film were shot at the Harvard Medical School, Beacon Hill and Logan Airport in Boston, Massachusetts, and Columbia University, the Payne Whitney Clinic and the Bronx Zoo in New York City. The Mexican scenes were filmed in remote Creel, Mexico, where the crew recorded footage of the Tarahumara tribe collecting sacred mushrooms. The dancer and choreographer, Miguel Godreau, was hired to portray the “Primal Man,” the protagonist’s alter ego. Scenes with Godreau also featured, as a 12 Jun 1979 DV reports, “three two-ton elephants, a 5000-pound rhinoceros, three bull mastiffs and a herd of Sardinian sheep.”
       According to the director’s autobiography, the film was on the verge of being re-cut when a preview aimed at college students near UCLA met with enthusiastic success. Russell claimed that many young people “went back time and again for the hallucinations alone.” Contemporary reviewers praised the hallucinatory depictions of the protagonist’s experimental mind-trips: Richard Corliss of Time called the film a “precognitive dream of delirium and delight.” Janet Maslin of the NYT more equivocally complimented the film’s “strangeness […] its most enjoyable feature” but criticized the over-earnestness of the screenplay and the overly “literal” ending.
       Altered States marked the feature film debuts of William Hurt and Drew Barrymore. John Corigliano was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Score. The film was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Sound. In addition, William Hurt was nominated for a Golden Globe for New Star of the Year in a Motion Picture – Male.

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GEOGRAPHIC LOCATIONS
PERSONAL & COMPANY INDEX CREDITS
HISTORY CREDITS
CREDIT TYPE
CREDIT
General (mod):
Personal note credit:
SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Daily Variety
30 Jan 1979.
---
Daily Variety
26 Mar 1979.
---
Daily Variety
12 Jun 1979.
---
Daily Variety
27 Jun 1979.
---
Hollywood Reporter
12 Mar 1979.
---
Hollywood Reporter
9 Mar 1979.
---
Hollywood Reporter
14 Mar 1979.
---
Hollywood Reporter
8 Jun 1979.
---
Hollywood Reporter
4 Oct 1979.
---
Hollywood Reporter
12 Dec 1980
p. 6.
Los Angeles Times
11 Apr 1978.
---
Los Angeles Times
17 Apr 1978.
---
Los Angeles Times
19 Jul 1979.
---
Los Angeles Times
5 Jan 1980.
---
Los Angeles Times
21 Dec 1980
p. 1.
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest
31 Dec 1980
p. 58.
New York Times
25 Dec 1980
p. 15.
New Yorker
19 Jan 1981
p. 100.
Saturday Review
18 Feb 1981
p. 81.
Time
10 Dec 1980
p. 58.
Time
29 Dec 1980.
---
Variety
31 May 1978.
---
Variety
12 Mar 1979.
---
Variety
21 Mar 1979.
---
Variety
13 Dec 1979.
---
Variety
10 Dec 1980
p. 30, 32.
Village Voice
10 Dec 1980
p. 65.
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Unit prod mgr
Asst dir
2d asst dir
PRODUCERS
Exec prod
Assoc prod
WRITER
Wrt for the screen by
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
Cam op
1st asst cam
2d asst cam
Stillman
Gaffer
Key grip
Best boy
2d grip
Dolly grip
Company grip
Company grip
Time lapse photog
ART DIRECTORS
Prod des
Asst art dir
Illustrator
FILM EDITORS
Film ed
Asst ed
2d asst ed
Apprentice ed
SET DECORATORS
Set dec
Lead man
Propmaster
Asst props
Const coord
Const foreman
Paint foreman
COSTUMES
Cost des
Men's cost
Women's cost
SOUND
Supv sd ed
Sd mixer
Boom man
Cable man
Re-rec mixer
Re-rec mixer
Re-rec mixer
Sd ed
Sd ed
Sd ed
Asst sd ed
Sd consultant
VISUAL EFFECTS
Spec visual eff
Spec eff
Asst spec eff
Spec opt eff
Spec opt eff
Spec laser eff
Title credits prod and des by
Title credits prod and des by
Dir of photog, Spec eff
MAKEUP
Spec makeup
Assisted by, Spec makeup
Assisted by, Spec makeup
Spec makeup asst
Makeup man
Hair stylist
PRODUCTION MISC
Casting
Casting
Addl casting
Addl casting
Prod assoc
Asst to Mr. Russell
Asst to the prod
Loc mgr
Prod secy
Transportation capt
Transportation coord
Driver
Driver
Driver
Driver
Honeywagon driver
Research asst
Tech consultant
Prod auditor
STAND INS
Stuntman
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the novel Altered States by Paddy Chayefsky (New York, 1978).
LITERARY SOURCE AUTHOR
MUSIC
Excerpts from "Voile d'Orphee" by Pierre Henry.
SONGWRITER/COMPOSER
DETAILS
Release Date:
25 December 1980
Production Date:
began 23 Mar 1979
Physical Properties:
Sound
Dolby Stereo
Color
Technicolor®
Lenses/Prints
Lenses and Panaflex® Cameras by Panavision®
Duration(in mins):
103
MPAA Rating:
R
Country:
United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
26085
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

Dr. Eddie Jessup, a young physiologist, is nominally working on schizophrenic pathology, but reserves his true zeal for experiments with his colleague, Arthur Rosenberg, in isolation-produced hallucination, using himself as a subject. At a party he meets Emily, an anthropology student at Columbia University. The two fall in love. Eddie experiences mystical trances during sex; he reveals to Emily that in his experiments he is seeking to unearth the religious visions that he experienced as a teenager. In the isolation tank, he relives his father’s death while tormented by images of a crucified man with the head of a monstrous goat. The young woman, fascinated with his strangeness, persuades him to marry her. Seven years and two children later, Eddie and Emily—now both professors—are on the verge of splitting up: Emily plans to work for a year in Africa, while Eddie has conceived a trip to Mexico to encounter a tribe that uses psychotropic mushrooms in their rituals. During a dinner party with Emily, Arthur, and a physician friend, Mason Parrish, Eddie reveals that his fanatical search for the “original self” has driven the couple apart. Both Emily and Arthur worry over his increasing thirst for ultimate truth, which he believes rests in humankind’s “physiological memory” of the past. Nonetheless, Eddie departs for Mexico with scientist Eduardo Echeverria. There, a native chieftain assures him that he will experience his original soul during the hallucinatory ritual. The scientist drinks the witch doctor’s brew. Frightening visions assault him: explosions, atavistic dances, and writhing reptiles mingle with alluring images of Emily. When he awakens, disoriented, Eduardo tells him that he has killed a ...

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Dr. Eddie Jessup, a young physiologist, is nominally working on schizophrenic pathology, but reserves his true zeal for experiments with his colleague, Arthur Rosenberg, in isolation-produced hallucination, using himself as a subject. At a party he meets Emily, an anthropology student at Columbia University. The two fall in love. Eddie experiences mystical trances during sex; he reveals to Emily that in his experiments he is seeking to unearth the religious visions that he experienced as a teenager. In the isolation tank, he relives his father’s death while tormented by images of a crucified man with the head of a monstrous goat. The young woman, fascinated with his strangeness, persuades him to marry her. Seven years and two children later, Eddie and Emily—now both professors—are on the verge of splitting up: Emily plans to work for a year in Africa, while Eddie has conceived a trip to Mexico to encounter a tribe that uses psychotropic mushrooms in their rituals. During a dinner party with Emily, Arthur, and a physician friend, Mason Parrish, Eddie reveals that his fanatical search for the “original self” has driven the couple apart. Both Emily and Arthur worry over his increasing thirst for ultimate truth, which he believes rests in humankind’s “physiological memory” of the past. Nonetheless, Eddie departs for Mexico with scientist Eduardo Echeverria. There, a native chieftain assures him that he will experience his original soul during the hallucinatory ritual. The scientist drinks the witch doctor’s brew. Frightening visions assault him: explosions, atavistic dances, and writhing reptiles mingle with alluring images of Emily. When he awakens, disoriented, Eduardo tells him that he has killed a lizard in a fit of drugged violence. Eddie loudly dismisses the ritual as a fraud but is intrigued enough to smuggle some of the hallucinogen back to his home in Boston. Recruiting Arthur and Mason, Eddie begins to experiment with the drug, experiencing ever more exhilarating but disturbing trips. Under the men’s supervision, he takes a large dose before climbing naked into an isolation tank in a makeshift basement laboratory. Arthur and Mason hear his excited description of traveling back to the era of the proto-humans and hunting goats with them. Suddenly, weird barking noises interrupt the monologue. The scientists rush to Eddie’s aid and find him bleeding from the mouth and unable to speak. When Eddie frantically instructs them via pen and paper to x-ray his neck, the scientists find that the physiognomy of his larynx has temporarily changed. The effects of the experiment haunt Eddie even after he seemingly returns to normal; at night, in the bed of one of his students, he finds his arm, chest and feet contorting into ape-like forms. Fascinated, he takes notes on his condition. Emily returns from Kenya with the children. Mason Parrish’s letters about Eddie’s obsession have already worried her; when she finds her husband in a rage over the other scientists’ reluctance to repeat the experiment, she becomes alarmed. Nevertheless, she agrees to review the evidence that Eddie’s genetic and physiological structure regressed during his trip. That night, Eddie returns alone to the isolation tank. He emerges from the tank a shrieking, agile ape-man. A night watchman and a security guard chase the ape-man into a boiler room, where the creature stalks both of them and attacks them with the guard’s club. The ape-man escapes the basement and a pack of feral dogs chases him to the zoo. There, he kills and devours a small sheep. By the time a policeman arrives, the ape-man has reverted to Eddie Jessup who has passed out naked next to the mutilated corpse of the sheep. Emily and Mason bring Eddie home from jail. Eddie’s ecstasy at achieving a primal state terrifies his wife—even more so when Mason reports that a monkey has been sighted in the basement and has nearly killed a man. Later that night, Emily listens to transcripts of the first experiment and becomes convinced that Eddie physically transformed during his trip. After asking Eddie over, she begs him to wait before risking his health in another experiment. But curiosity prevails. A third experiment erupts in noise and blinding light from the isolation tank as Eddie screams, his face deforming. Emily tries to open the tank door, but Mason carries her outside and goes back for Arthur just as an explosion rocks the basement. Only Emily is left conscious. She finds the room a vortex of water, Eddie a gruesome mound of primordial tissue at the center. Finally he reverts to a single pulsing cell. Emily’s touch restores him to human form. The scientists take the unconscious Eddie back to his apartment. As Mason and Arthur bicker over whether to continue the experiments, Emily laments Eddie’s inability to be satisfied with human connection as long as he lusts after absolute truth. But that night, the other men having left, Eddie confesses to his wife that he loves her and wishes he could return to her; if only he had not already gone so far in his pursuit. At that moment, Eddie’s limbs begin to change. His body races through evolutionary history, from ape-man to primordial mass. Emily rushes to him, exhorting him to fight the changes, but his touch turns her into a burning electrical silhouette. Eddie subdues the transformations by force of will and takes hold of Emily. The two at last regain human form in each other’s arms. Man and woman caress each other tenderly.

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Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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