Altered States (1980)

8.5 Overall Score
Story: 8/10
Acting: 9/10
Visuals: 9/10

Love the visuals

The story works better in the horror sequences

Movie Info

Movie Name:  Altered States

Studio:  Warner Bros.

Genre(s):  Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Horror

Release Date(s):  December 25, 1980

MPAA Rating:  R


I’m going to need the Gillette Turbo from now on!

Dr. Edward Jessup (William Hurt) is a scientist interested in pass life regression.  Experimenting with an isolation tank and an untested drug, Jessup and his partner Arthur Rosenberg (Bob Balaban) are finding that they might have tapped into a source of past life regression.  When Jessup begins manifesting a primal state outside of the isolation tank, the danger could be growing for Jessup, his estranged wife Emily (Blair Brown), and anyone who encounters the beast within him.

Directed by Ken Russell, Altered States is a sci-fi horror film.  The film is based on the 1978 novel of Paddy Chayefsky who adapted the story for the film, but Chayefsky’s clashes with Russell led to him disowned the film.  The movie was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Original Score and Best Sound.  The film was also notable for being the film premiere for both William Hurt and Drew Barrymore.


Nope…nothing trippy here…

As a kid, Altered States seemed to be on TV a lot.  I can remember trying to watch Altered States and being bored to death.  Watching the movie as an adult, I can see why a kid who was accustom to slashers and monsters would find this film dull.  The psychological thriller is much more science based and interpretational.

The story for Altered States is pretty odd in that manner.  The movie would be one of those “experiments in terror” type films, but also brings with it a lot of drama about the detached scientist and his wife.  For me, the horror peaks in middle of the film with the transformation into the scary ape-man/cave man.  The later transformations are more science-fiction and interpretational…a regression in form versus a regression in mind and body.  It leads to a rather odd, anticlimactic ending (if you were expecting a bigger blow-out) and a level of peace for both characters.


What’s more terrifying than an caveman? A whirlpool…yeah…

The acting for the movie is quite strong with William Hurt’s premiere performance as the tortured, detached doctor.  He can be a complete jerk most of the time, but there is something nice about him trying to reach out and understand himself…be it through science or his estranged wife.   Blair Brown also gives a nice (though small) performance as his wife and the role could easily have been bigger for more exploration of their relationship.  Both Bob Balaban and Charles Haid play scientists trying to temper Hurt’s reckless actions and Drew Barrymore has a minor role as his daughter before blowing up in movies like E.T., Firestarter, and Irreconcilable Differences.


These are the spiciest nachos ever!

The real star of Altered States is some very trippy visuals.  The movie often goes into surreal visions with religious themes like the multi-eyed goat, the shroud of Turin, and the Crucifixion.  It is very unnerving.  The ape regression works the best and is rather terrifying both in how it looks and is shot, but the ending sequence is one of the first uses of computer animation for a film…the primordial ooze regression however doesn’t seem as terrifying to me.

Altered States is a thinking man’s horror film.  It isn’t the scariest thing you’ll see but there is a bit of a creeping terror to it.  I like some of the science-fiction aspects to the story but prefer the horror when it comes down to it.  Over the years, the film has gained more and more followers and it has for the most part held up.  If you are a fan of science-fiction or horror and don’t want an easy slasher pic, check out the odd and different Altered States.

Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

Leave A Response