mike@projection-booth.com mike@projection-booth.com

April 28, 2015

Episode 216: Altered States (1980)

Special Guests: Bob Balaban & Charles Haid
Guest Co-Host: Scott Clickers

Based on the book by and adapted for the screen by , Ken Russell's Altered States tells the tale of Edward Jessup (William Hurt), a scientist who’s looking for answers to some of the big questions of life, memory, spirituality, and more. He meets, marries, divorces, and reconciles with Emily (Blair Brown) over the course of a decade of study where he ingests some questionable substances while subjecting himself to sensory deprivation. Here Eddie finds a way to travel back in time through his own body’s chemistry to the days of primeval man.

We talk to two of the co-stars of Altered States and we're joined in our discussion by Scott Clickers from the podcast Married with Clickers.

Listen/Download Now:

Buy Altered States on DVD
Buy Altered States by Paddy Chayefsky
Buy Altered States: The Autobiography of Ken Russell by Ken Russell
Buy Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond by Martin A. Lee & Bruce Shlain
Buy Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge A Radical History of Plants, Drugs, and Human Evolution by Terence McKenna
Buy The Archaic Revival: Speculations on Psychedelic Mushrooms, the Amazon, Virtual Reality, UFOs, Evolution, Shamanism, the Rebirth of the Goddess, and the End of History by Terence McKenna
Read Is LSD about to return to polite society? by Ed Cumming
Listen to Married with Clickers
Listen to our episode on Ken Russell's The Devils
Listen to our episode on Simon

"Primeval Landscape" - John Corigliano
"Shamanix" - Hallucinogen



  1. Wonderful job on this program. Thank you from an admirer of all things "Altered States". I thought I would include on more link to John C. Lilly, the creator of the isolation tank, and the inspiration behind Chayefsky's novel.


  2. Have many feelings about your analysis of Altered States, and while I'm not sure I understand your varied problems with the portrayal of certain characters, I think it's interesting that Rob brought up the history of accidental ingestion of ergot by people in the middle ages, and didn't connect it to Ken Russell's The Devils. It has been suggested that the mass hysteria of the nuns in that story/film was from the possible ingestion of grain that had been rotted. Therefore there is more of a connection between the films than just having the same director....at least as it involves the psychedelic experience, so to speak.

    I've enjoyed Altered States since seeing it upon it's original release many times. I'm always curious to hear how people younger than myself react to the film. I found your reactions interesting. I'd say more, but I'm pressed for time. Interestingly, my one experience in an isolation tank took place in Ypsilanti, MI a few months before I saw the film when I was in Ann Arbor for a Super 8 film festival in winter 1980. I had a much different experience than Mike did. It took place in the home of a fellow who was a minister in the Universal Life Church. I've always wanted to own a tank similar to that fellow's and I will if I ever own a house with enough space. Thanks for the show!

  3. Fascinating links.

    I watched ALTERED STATES in the most unlikely of places - psychology class in my junior year of high school. A public high school in the USA, mind you, where they were afraid to show us any R-rated films because of easily offended parents (even movies like SAVING PRIVATE RYAN required our parents to sign a permission form for us to view in history class).

    I don't know what the psychology teacher was thinking. ALTERED STATES was definitely not a school-approved film! The teacher just randomly saw the VHS one day and rented it for her psychology class without having watched it. "Oh, a movie about altered states of consciousness, that's the current textbook chapter."

    The sad part of this memory is that my classmates reacted to this film WITH COMPLETE APATHY. It was as if they would have been indifferent to any film picked by the teacher... "Because she's a teacher, any film viewed in a classroom is square." For all I know, she could have played SALO and no one would have flinched.

    I've never seen a group of teenagers so indifferent watching scenes of graphic sex intercut with psychedelic crucifixion imagery.

  4. Once again the Projection Booth has exposed me to a stimulating film that I had never heard of. I found it at my local library and watched it over the weekend.

    I immediately recognized that Altered States, at least in the form of Ken Russell's film, would never be made by a major studio today. As was discussed in the podcast, the viewer is left to interpret much of the action- certainly in the first two-thirds of the film- and the characters' motivations. Keeping a viewer guessing about where a film is going seems quite anathema in the current market. Having a delayed answer as to whether Jessup was hallucinating or actually transforming generated a lot of suspense and kept me anticipating what would happen next. The result was, however, that the journey of the film was more interesting than the actual denouement. One could state the same thing about another movie you covered, The Holy Mountain.

    Being something of a spiritual seeker in my own life, I could identify with Eddie Jessup's dissatisfaction with the reality of daily human experience. The visions he had as boy seem to have given Jessup a sense of the existence of a transcendent realm beyond what one could term the "material" existence of ordinary human affairs. When he was no longer able to have the visions connected with his Christian faith, he sought other ways to discover a higher plane of existence. This is how I interpret Jessup's motivation for pursuing the research path he chose.

    It is the capacity of movies to take a person to another reality or state of mind that keeps me watching them. Those moments of transcendence are rare and fleeting, so I savor them when they happen.

    Thank you for the show, Mike and Rob. Your company has helped me through many a dark moment in life over the last 1.5 years.

  5. The Foreign ViewerJun 21, 2015, 8:12:00 AM

    The Foreign Viewer said...

    Thanks for covering this! :)

    As a fan of 80s film in general, 80s Sci-fi genre specifically and this ingeniously put together cast and crew, I saw the movie as a teen during the mid 90s and loved it (and I'm not even a drug user in the slightest). This had such Cronenbergian vibe (the whole physical and psychological transformation aspect) and when you combine that with the amazing f-ed up visuals of Russell and a pedantic, but still effective Chayefsky script you get a really cool cult movie that deserved much more respect and attention. This was truly a film ahead of its time. In fact, since I'm not from the US, I had no idea (until the internet and imdb became a thing) that this movie was so much lambasted by the critics and ignored by the audiences that it more or less killed Russell's career! Even your friend Josh Hadley still bashes on this movie to this day, him being a Chayefsky fanboy and all. And that's another thing. Why in the f would Chayefsky hate this? As you've said, Russell pretty much did what he wrote, but upped the ante with his visuals and energized acting. Then again, King hates Shining, so it's not like similar bizarre denouncements of good movies by the original authors have never happened before or since.

    The lack of any information on the production of this movie and the fact that the movie is more or less pretty forgotten is also unbelievable, so I thank you again for shining some light on this subject. In fact, your two interviews could work well as a background "bootleg" commentary, while you're watching the movie.

    The only thing I don't get about this episode is why you had Scott on. Although he does sound like a cool and likable guy, he still added next to nothing to the discussion.