Some cult films have such an expansive audience, they may as well be mainstream. Others attract a smaller, more dedicated cult of followers who share the movie's joys via word of mouth and keep it alive at midnight screenings. Then there are other films that seem to have no cult at all, yet are still inarguably "cult" movies, due to their subject matter or by virtue of their sheer insanity.
Altered States is one of the latter.
As far as I can tell, I am the sole member of the Altered States cult. I've met very few people who've seen it, and fewer still who have the same affection for it that I do. As far as I know, it doesn't get midnight screenings and I have never seen a special edition version of the DVD -- but it is unquestionably a cult movie. It's one of a small handful of science fiction movies that eschew outer space for inner space, and one of even fewer that get it even close to right.
The plot concerns a psychology professor who begins to explore various altered states of consciousness, first via an isolation tank, then later with drugs and eventually with the drugs and tank in conjunction. The sessions led him to stranger and stranger states of consciousness, until eventually they begin changing him physically as well, causing him to revert to a primitive, pre-human state and go even further back by the time it's all over. This is all acted out with complete sincerity, even as it shifts from somewhat plausible to absolutely ludicrous, which is part of the film's charm. This is not an exploitative, cheap riff on "drugs are bad, mmkay?" with some wacky special effects thrown in. It's Serious Stuff, delivered in an earnest, straightforward way -- well, as straightforward a way as possible when you're talking about a tale of a man who experiences cosmic consciousness and devolves into a primitive primate as a result.
Like many cult movies, it has a twisted and tortured origin story. It chewed up one director and a special effects expert, both of whom resigned. It was bounced from Columbia to Warner Brothers. The writer, Paddy Chayefsky, was reportedly banned from the set, then asked to have his name taken off of it. On top of that, it's definitely dated-looking now, with its early '80s special effects. Despite all of that, it's still a singular movie worthy of a much bigger cult than just me.
It's the drugs that set the movie apart. There aren't many, if any, other films that engage with the legacy of psychedelic drugs in the way that Altered States does. It's based, loosely, on the life of John C. Lilly, one of the lesser known researchers -- at least within the mainstream -- into the phenomenon of psychedelic drugs, and also one of the weirder ones. (His theories about the nature of reality make the plot of this movie seem positively down to earth.) The drug sequences, which utilize the bulk of those dated '80s effects, get neither the look or sound of the drugs right -- taking an actual psychedelic drug is essentially nothing like what's shown onscreen. Yet somehow, in the strange shifts of context and meaning, in the constant rush of imagery and kaleidoscopic sense that reality itself is coming apart and reconfiguring itself into new and startling configurations, and in the existential dread it puts its characters through, it gets the gestalt of taking psychedelic drugs right. It might be a slight exaggeration to say that watching Altered States is as close as you can get to taking a psychedelic trip without actually taking a psychedelic trip, but... just a slight one.
On top of that, it's actually a pretty decent movie, albeit a flawed one. It's a little incoherent -- perhaps inevitable, given the subject matter -- and its earnestness, while absolutely one of its strengths, is hard to take at times. It's still absolutely vital viewing for anyone with an interest, practical or historical, in psychedelic drugs, and as a reminder that Hollywood used to make some really, really fucked up movies.
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