Altered States (Ken Russell / U.S., 1980):

A track-out introduces William Hurt-in-a-can, a scientist floating inside a tank to let the fantasies pour out of his mind, the camera placed beneath his soles looking up to remind you this is Ken Russell doing a Hollywood sci-fi opus. Madness to Hurt is "just another state of consciousness," so deeper he plunges into psychedelic paraphernalia in search of the "unborn soul," unclogging pounds of symbolism within his brain along the way -- a crucified goat-man blinks its seven eyes from the cross he's been nailed to, though the film's one good shot is back in this world, the hero's pot-party introduction to anthropologist Blair Brown while "Light My Fire" revs up in the soundtrack. One single cut and they've zipped through marriage and divorce, Hurt's obsession with consciousness taking him to a cave in Mexico for some special 'shroom stew, a single taste of which ignites the fireworks Russell has been lolling around for: snakes, lava detonations, painted masks, popping poppies, people turning to dust, Brown nude on the floor imitating a lizard (all right, two good shots). Back home, the new hallucinogen is mingled with isolation-tank therapy for double mindfuck effect; Hurt is fished out with blood over his mouth, but the troglodyte within doesn't fully emerge until later, a furry little acrobat leaping out for a little sheep-snacking at the zoo. Primal regression, and "supremely satisfying" for the scientist, since the id gets a holiday and the director, fat-assed during those human relationship moments, can wake up and use up those Tommy outtakes. Insanity is an envious escape for the academic, and '60s psychologists aren't different from Russell's other blowhard artists in their vying for the promethean -- a "wacko" is how a mere human describes Hurt, "a Faust freak" to Brown, but oh for Murnau to handle these visions. Instead, Russell frenzy-edits the material from Paddy Chayefsky (who predictably went Alan Smithee) into images of bestial stupidity, Hurt portraying The Blob while the cosmos becomes a pulsing whirlwind aiming for 2001 but barely reaching The Black Whole, let alone The Holy Mountain or Videodrome. With Bob Balaban, Charles Haid, and Miguel Godreau.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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