At the very beginning of the year I had procured a copy of a Ken Russell biography with the ridiculous title of Phallic Frenzy. It was found in a charity shop in some distant London suburb called West Wickham. Actually, there were a number of interesting books found there but this is the one I’ve started reading. Given that I thought it would be grand to log in an entry about my favourite of Russell’s films, and I’ve seen the majority of them.
Whereas Russell’s more familiar “trademark” work revolves around music, in particular giving a campy, rock-n-roll spin to classic composers complete with lots of sexualised, surrealistic symbolic imagery, Altered States, while keeping a lot of those trademarks, is a more sinister science-fiction based film.
The film, in a brief description, follows a university professor called Edward Jessup (William Hurt) who explores schizophrenia, mental illness and other states of mind by placing himself in water-based isolation tanks for hours on end in some sort of state of suspended animation. This lack of outside stimulus, or sensory depravation, is to put focus on the imagery within the mind and allowing those thoughts to fill the void.
Jessup gets more obsessed with the research to the point where he starts using heavy psychedelic drugs like ayahuasca in combination with these isolation experiments. At this point the film crosses over into science fiction as his body begins to morph and transform into more primal states.
There’s obviously more to the film than that but one would get that from watching the film. I saw this film in my teens and then again in recent years, reminding me of how much I was inspired by Russell’s use of collage-based imagery in his films, especially this one. The hallucination sequences in this film are composed by use of photo and video collages and they are quite striking. There’s a lot of symbolic and religious imagery including multi-eyed goats, burning crosses, morphing fleshy masses and surrealist landscapes. It would seem that Russell had maybe taken cue from the classic school of surrealism, even if only in the sense of familiarity and composition as opposed to the subject matter itself.
And I think there’s perhaps a filmic aspect to some of the graphic collage work I’ve done over the years, especially after viewing a film like this again in recent times. Definitely a staple of mine. Other Russell films worth watching are Mahler, The Devils, Lair of The White Worm (a campy occult number featuring the “loveable” Hugh Grant) and of course, Tommy, which is actually a lot darker than I remember it from when I was young!