Flashback to William Hurt's First Movie, the Trippy 'Altered States'

William Hurt in "Altered States": 1950-2022

Willliam Hurt, who died at 71 on March 13, got his start in 1980 playing psychonaut Dr. Edward Jessep in Altered States, directed by Ken Russell and written by Paddy Chayefsky. Eddie's a researcher at Columbia University who's into isolation tanks and magic/psilocybin mushrooms, both popular in the '70s.

In a 1999, Altered States placed No. 14 on High TimesTop 25 Drug Movies of All Time. It's No. 108 on Ranker's list. The book Reefer Movie Madness calls it "one of the great psychedelic movies."

"Eddie wants to regress to some quasi-Simian creation," the review reads. "'He starts with sensory deprivation, then ups the ante, traveling to Mexico, where he trip with Indians on Amanita muscaria, experiencing truly mind-blowing and even life-changing hallucinations.

"Eddie brings the strange brew back with him to the lab and that's when his body starts devolving into a gorilla, werewolf-style. One night he explodes out of the tank and ends up in a local zoo, gnawing on an antelope."

In his appreciation of Hurt at Variety, Owen Glieberman calls the movie a "loony-tunes acid-head psychodrama."

In the video below, Renegade Cut says, "Altered States is more like The Matrix in that it wants to explore psychological and physiological concepts, but has no pretense about being scientically accurate. That's fine. The Matrix's goal is not to be true to science. It's something more abstract. And so too is Altered States."

"Altered States" poster, 1980

Mushrooms appear to be the key psychotropic ingredient in the pot stirred by the Hinchi tribe. Renegated Cut alternately refers to Amanita and ayahuasca, the Amazon hallucinogen, as the drug he drinks.

There's also another ingredient, "first flower," noted in the clip above and at Wikipedia:

"Edward is told by his guide, Eduardo Echeverria, that the Hinchi use in their ceremonies a potion containing the sacred mushroom Amanita muscaria and the shrub Sinicuiche (Heimia salicifolia), which they are collecting for next year's ceremonies. The tribe calls Heimia salicifolia by a Hinchi name meaning 'first/primordial flower' in recognition of the deep memory states which it can evoke. An indigenous elder (brujo) is seen with a root (presumably intended to be a Heimia root) in his hand, which he asks Edward to hold, before cutting it in order to add some drops of blood to the mixture he is preparing. Immediately after consuming the mixture, Edward experiences bizarre, intense hallucinations."

Once Eddie begins taking the shamanic concoction while in the tank, all hell breaks loose as he's plunged into a hellish landscape he may not get out of.

But eventually everything works out for Eddie and his equally daring wife Emily (Blair Brown). With heightened interest in psychedelics these day, Altered States is worth watching (again or for the first time). 


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Steve Bloom

Steve Bloom

Publisher of CelebStoner.com, former editor of High Times and Freedom Leaf and co-author of Pot Culture and Reefer Movie Madness.