Altered States on Altered States

| Patrick Clifford |

Sweaty man in a dirty shirt stares wide-eyed at the camera as soft lights flicker in the night sky behind him.

Altered States plays on glorious 35mm at the Trylon Cinema from Friday, July 12th, through Sunday, July 14th. Visit trylon.org for tickets and more information.


In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected to be the 40th President of these United States. Among other things, Ronny and his wife Nancy were to become the figureheads of the War on Drugs with a PSA campaign that told America to “Just Say No.” 

Also in 1980, Ken Russell made the movie Altered States. Its hero, Eddie Jessup, played by William Hurt, waged a different kind of war on drugs. If Eddie Jessup had his own PSA campaign, it could have been titled “Just Say More.”

This post will not attempt to tell you what to say to drugs. Instead, it will let Eddie Jessup and Ken Russell show you how to avoid taking the wrong drugs with the wrong people for the wrong reasons by way of 21 signs.

SIGN 1: Dark, claustrophobic environments = terrifying.

Eddie prefers taking his drugs while floating in a copper tank that has all the suffocating comfort of an upright underwater coffin located in what could easily pass as a serial killer’s dungeon.  

SIGN 2: Casually putting your hand down your own pants is a creepy look.

While Eddie monologues his goals to unlock consciousness or something, he boldly strolls with his hand under his belt in the direction of his crotch. This occurs despite the presence of two to eight decent-sized pockets in his bell bottoms and velvety blazer.

SIGN 3: Don’t attend parties where people play “Light My Fire.”

We’re at a scientist party. The scientists worry about Eddie’s ass-like qualities while sharing joints and listening to one of the many keyboard solos in “Light My Fire” by The Doors.

SIGN 4: Seeing yourself as Christ-like.

Eddie arrives at the scientist party just as a keyboard solo crescendos with Robbie Krieger’s guitar. Backlighting is involved. Zoom lenses are zooming. Übermensch statues are crowning. Ladies are melting. Ken Russell seems to be telling us Eddie is preppy Christ. 

SIGN 5: Making female characters perform fellatio with carrots (unless you’re Amy Heckerling).

Ken is definitely on cocaine. The shot starts tight on carrots positioned directly in front of Eddie’s junk. Emily slowly grabs one and puts it in her mouth as sitar music desperately attempts to add sexiness.

SIGN 6: Telling new female co-workers you just met you want to go home with them tonight.

Not to be out-misogynied by Ken, Eddie drops this romance-sparker to Emily directly after mansplaining religious experiences in schizophrenia. 

SIGN 7: Thinking about “God. Jesus. Crucifixion.” during sex and admitting it.

After Eddie and Emily make unapologetic orgasm faces under the demonic warm glow of a radiator eye that swallows Eddie’s full attention, Emily asks what Eddie is thinking about. He replies, “God. Jesus. Crucifixion.”

SIGN 8: Goats with 7 eyes.

If you’re taking hallucinogenic drugs, avoid the ones where 7-eyed goats show up, get slaughtered, and then end up on Christ’s body on the cross.

SIGN 9: Visiting primitive Incan tribes in Mexico, acting like an entitled American Ivy League frat bro, denying that you killed sacred lizards that you absolutely killed whilst tripping, and stealing their psychedelic mushroom stew so you can “study” it more.

Oh Eddie. 

SIGN 10: You start preferring smaller, more confined isolation tanks and longer-lasting, more intense psychedelics.

Where are John Mulaney’s friends when you need them?

SIGN 11: You start saying “I’m becoming one of them,” and when your worried friends (who are clearly not as concerned as John Mulaney’s friends) ask if you’re okay, you respond, “BEAUTIFUL! BEAUTIFUL!”

SIGN 12: Bleeding from your mouth and losing your ability to speak.

SIGN 13: X-rays reveal that you are a fucking gorilla.

SIGN 14: While taking a shower, you look down and notice your feet are covered in hair and you now have a sixth toe that resembles a foot thumb. And you laugh.

SIGN 15: During a heated argument with your spouse, you find it reasonable to say, “I’m asking you to take a small quantum jump with me to accept one deviant concept—that our other states of consciousness are as real as our waking states, and that that reality can be externalized.” As a topper, you claim your spouse is patronizing you.

SIGN 16: You leave your isolation tank a fully devolved Missing Link and immediately want to murder everything that crosses your path. 

SIGN 17: You wake up in a zoo next to the carcass of a hooved animal that you have felled with a rock and eaten alive.

SIGN 18: When excitedly explaining signs 16 and 17 to your wife after she picks you up from jail, you tell her it was the most supremely satisfying moment of your life. Followed by, “I may have killed a man tonight.” 

SIGN 19: Your Harvard drug lair is transformed into a ginormous whirlpool into which you have been sucked. As your cells divide and explode like a Tangerine Dream video wall at The Sphere, your wife dives in and pieces you back together like a Star Trek transporter. Remarkably, no one is freaking out.

SIGN 20: Bob Balaban is walking around ranting, “What we saw here tonight, is a physical-ah, phenomenon-ah.” For some reason-ah.

SIGN 21: After one last very trippy relapse, you FINALLY tell your wife that you love her and realize drugs are bullshit and that you have kids after all, so like, snap out of it. 

Are there more signs of rampant, delusional, self-aggrandizing drug experiences in Altered States? You bet there are. Just as sure as Eddie Jessup will be back to slurping mushroom stew shortly after the credits roll. But Altered States is also a visually stunning movie that boldly and freshly takes on the challenge of representing mind-blowing psychedelic experiences and greatly succeeds. And you don’t even have to wake up naked in a zoo to feel the buzz. 


Edited by Olga Tchepikova-Treon

Bookmark the permalink.

One Comment

  1. Patrick Clifford is hands down the best movie reviewer I’ve ever had to endure.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *