Those who admire outre, risk-taking artistry would likely have mourned the passing of Ken Russell, an irrepressible and vital figure in post-war British cinema. Russell possessed the ability to make you look at subject matter in a different way, filtered through his own visual prism.
Russell’s tackled a broad canvas of material from several historical eras in his carer focusing on or drawing inspiration from the works and lives of artists, writers, poets and musicians Tchaikovsky and Mahler to D.H. Lawrence and The Who.
With 1980’s Altered States, Russell took on a screenplay by the acclaimed, Oscar-winning screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky (Marty, Network) who adapted his own novel in which a professor of abnormal psychology whose curiosity about other states of consciousness leads him to begin experimenting with sensory deprivation therapy and psychoactive drugs. These mind experiments result in acute psychological and physical transformation eventually leading to a bizarre, horrific biological devolution.
Russell’s baroque film-making style proved to be ideally suited to the mindbending themes of Chayefsky’s material but at the time the English director was virtually unemployable in Hollywood after both the failure of 1977’s Valentino, his expensive biopic of the silent movie icon and the perceived visual excesses of 1975’s double-header of Tommy and Lizstomania.
Warner Brothers reluctantly hired Russell after original director Arthur Penn (Bonnie & Clyde) pulled out at the eleventh hour after a dispute with Chayefsky who also clashed with the flamboyant Brit’s distinctive creative approach.
The result was something of a creative and commercial triumph for Russell although it failed to re-ignite his Hollywood career and stands up as both one of his most visually imaginative and narratively coherent films. The wild, hallucinatory imagery breathes life into Chayefsky’s provocative sci-fi ruminations, anchored by William Hurt‘s superb lead performance in his film début as the arrogant, handsome professor and composer John Corigliano‘s striking, experimental score which creates an unsettling mood throughout and in the film’s denouement, these strands weave together beautifully in a disturbing, exhilarating cinematic symphony.