Viking Night: Altered States

By Bruce Hall

August 2, 2017

They're about to hold their 50th reunion.

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Spoiler alert - I freaking love Altered States.

Sure, there are body horror elements. And I’ve never particularly been a fan of body horror. I know, this comes from a man who considers Eraserhead one of the most striking films ever made. David Cronenberg is one of my topmost respected directors, despite the fact I’m pretty sure his films are slowly driving me insane over time.

But famed screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky wisely utilized just the right amount of horror to build the valuable inertia this philosophically dense screenplay needed to avoid running out of gas. I’m not saying it doesn’t run out of gas, because it does. But it’s entirely possible that only the man who penned the utterly brilliant Network (1976) could make a story like Altered States land so well emotionally. Especially since in the same moment, it completely abandons the metaphysical head of steam it just spent two hours building up.

But if you like a good Mad Scientist story, this will be right up your alley.

Speaking of, there are only a few ways to approach playing a mad scientist. So whatever William Hurt tapped into for Eddie Jessup, I could use some of that for these late nights at the keyboard. As a brilliant psychologist in the area of schizophrenia, Eddie is obsessed with his work far past the point of being an eccentric weirdo. When he talks about science he’s positively evangelical - but not in an off-putting, traveling salesman sort of way. It’s in the splendidly, intellectually earnest way only William Hurt can do it, because he is Posh Jeff Bridges.


Eddie also has frequent visions of Christ, and makes it clear that this stems from the death of his father, which led to the loss of his faith, which is the reason he’s so devoted to his work. This happens, by the way, while he’s having sex with his future wife Emily (Blair Brown). It’s a half hour after they met, at one of those parties where people with postgraduate degrees stand around sipping wine and being aggressively smug. Good thing Emily is into it, because Eddie’s work involves experimenting with sensory deprivation to treat dangerously afflicted people.

“It takes a weirdo to love a weirdo," seems to be the point. Well seven years, two prestigious jobs and two kids later, the Jessups are in the process of divorcing. Eddie wishes to rid himself of what he calls the “clutter and ridiculous ritual” of marriage. But Motherhood has matured Emily, and she devotedly clings to the hope that someday she and her brilliantly demented husband will see things eye to eye. I know how this sounds, and some of you might be wondering why a person would stick around for someone so incapable of expressing love.

Well, you’ve probably never been in love, then. It can make you do some pretty stupid things.

You may also have noticed that Altered States sounds more like a domestic drama than the kind of movie where people turn into things that are not people. That’s because it is, but it never entirely feels that way (with the exception of one critical scene). That’s because the story is told entirely from Eddie’s point of view, and Eddie is into some seriously weird shit. Earlier I mentioned his experiments with sensory deprivation, but I did not discuss his simultaneous use of Mexican insanity mushrooms to try and unlock some sort of primordial biological code. He believes that since every molecule in our bodies has technically existed since the beginning of time, some element of everyone that’s ever lived is present in our DNA.

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