The Frida Cinema

Orange County's Year-Round Film Festival

Sensory Overload: The Fantastical Films of Ken Russell

Altered States screens Wednesday, February 12th


“A vague haze of delirium creeps up on him

Soaring and flying images spin

He is your leader, he is your guide

On the amazing journey, together you’ll ride!”

“Amazing Journey”, Tommy
Altered States

Love is in the air, but so is something else this month at the Frida! Our second WTF Wednesday screening commemorates the 40th anniversary of Altered States with a vibrant new 4K restoration of the film! A classic of psychological sci-fi cinema, the movie follows a scientist who uses sensory deprivation tanks and hallucinogenic drugs to explore the recesses of the human psyche. Filled with trippy ideas and even trippier visuals, it’s a film that has to be seen to be believed, preferably late at night in a crowded theater where others will be just as bewildered as you! If all that isn’t cool enough, it also has the distinction of directly inspiring another staple of 80s culture, the music video for a-Ha’s “Take On Me”!

Who’s the madman behind this movie, you ask? Ken Russell, a British director with a wide range of interests and an equally wide body of work. Working tirelessly from his days making documentaries for the BBC to helming controversial feature films at the height of his career to crowdfunding for independent experimental projects before his death, no one could deny Russell’s passion and devotion to cinema even as they questioned his artistic choices, and question them they did! With his penchant for blending elements of respectable, highbrow culture like classical music and Catholicism with violent, sexual, and (on occasion) fascist imagery, it’s little wonder that many found his films – to say nothing of Russell himself – despicable. That being said, just as many found in him a bold auteur who wasn’t afraid to take the images in his head, however bizarre or outrageous they might be, and make them real, which is arguably the one true goal of art.

In a sense, trying to capture the essence of Russell’s filmography in words (in only five of his titles no less) is a fool’s errand: their imagery, sounds, and sensations are meant to be seen and felt rather than read about. Well, I must be a fool because I’m about to try and do just that: if it means at least one person gets the pleasure of having their mind blown by any of the wonderfully weird movies below, then it will have been more than worth it!


Altered States

Altered States (1980)

It might be a career highpoint for Russell but believe it or not, Altered States was not written with him in mind as director. Adapted by Network scribe Paddy Chayefsky from his novel of the same name, the project was to be helmed by Bonnie and Clyde’s Arthur Penn before he quit over disagreements with the notoriously temperamental Chayefsky. Columbia then reportedly offered the film to, among others, Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, and Orson Welles before they finally approached Russell. While he, like Penn, would clash with Chayefsky over the movie, the final, fantastical product would be Russell’s unquestionable own.

The director’s first Hollywood production, the movie stars a then little-known actor named William Hurt in his feature film debut. Yes, before he got multiple Oscar nods (and decades before he joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross), the Children of a Lesser God star got his start as this movie’s Eddie Jessup, a parapsychologist hellbent on proving the tangible “reality” of other states of consciousness. Hurt is effective as Eddie, playing him as a brilliant man on an obsessive, Ahab-like hunt for truth and making viewers root for him even as they question his priorities, judgement, and sanity. 

Supporting Hurt’s Eddie is a worthy stable of talent, including Blair Brown (who would go on to play Nina Sharp in Fringe, a TV show regarded by many as a spiritual sequel to this movie) as his level-headed wife Emily and Bob Balaban (Francois Truffaut’s interpreter from that other high-minded sci-fi classic, Close Encounters of The Third Kind) as his research partner Arthur Rosenberg. The stand-out supporting cast member, however, is Charles Haid as Mason Parrish. A skeptical colleague of Eddie’s, Mason denigrates his extrasensory experiments yet always ends up assisting him, culminating in him delivering a furious rant about how a man of his academic stature and pedigree like him has neither time nor patience for Eddie’s theories of “regression”. This all said, with no hint of irony whatsoever, as he’s walking away to get some X-rays examined for signs that his friend has reverted to an earlier, evolutionary state.

“Hurt is effective as Eddie, playing him as a brilliant man on an obsessive, Ahab-like hunt for truth and making viewers root for him even as they question his priorities, judgement, and sanity.”

Just as impressive are the special effects scenes, and not simply because they’re as mind-boggling today as they must have been in 1980. Thanks to a sensational combination of rapid-fire editing, well-crafted practical effects, and carnival-like lighting, sights like the sensory deprivation tank erupting and bathing the lab in light and mist, Eddie killing and eating a multi-eyed goat, and him and Emily walking toward a crimson mushroom cloud strike viewers as not just stunning but impossibly convincing as well. These visuals are complemented by John Corigliano’s symphonic score, which has a colorfully bombastic quality that further heightens the frenzied feel and calls to mind some of the more intense moments of Disney’s Fantasia

What’s really interesting about the film, however, is how different it is in tone from many of Russell’s other movies. It’s played as a gripping but fairly serious science fiction story, reflecting Chayefsky’s insistence that the film stick to his straight-thinking screenplay as closely as possible. This extends to the heady dialogue, which Chayefsky insisted be delivered verbatim against Russell’s protests that much of it sounded pretentious. The director found a clever way of working around Chayefsky’s demand though: directing the cast to deliver their lines as quickly as possible. The result is tense, forceful performances that give the material an even greater sense of urgency and command the audience’s attention as much as the surreal sequences.

Equal parts speculative sci-fi and avant-garde art film, Altered States is a fevered 80s thriller that lasts the test of time and, in this humble writer’s opinion, ranks as Russell’s greatest film.


Tommy

Tommy (1975)

Growing up on classic rock, I heard about Tommy long before I watched anything by Ken Russell. A rock opera by The Who, the album revolutionized the genre with its now-classic songs and tale of a deaf, dumb, and blind kid who, deprived of his main senses, starts to perceive “vibrations” through his sense of touch and imagination. Groundbreaking as it was, it was inevitable that the album would get the silver screen treatment, although Russell’s involvement was far from a given. In fact, it’s nothing short of ironic that the movie would be directed by a man who, on top of being known primarily for his classical composer documentaries at that point, actually hated rock. Fortunately, the project’s religious themes and overtones won Russell over, and we’re all the better for it.

True to its musical form, the story of Tommy is told entirely through song. Whereas other filmmakers might have been hard-pressed to tell a story as ambitious and far-reaching as this one without any dialogue whatsoever, Russell appears perfectly comfortable realizing the film’s plot through aural and visual sensation rather than conventional narrative techniques. Not only does this allow viewers to suspend their disbelief and accept images like Tommy running over stock footage of crashing waves and erupting volcanoes or his late dad (played by the criminally underrated Robert Powell) hanging Christ-like across a fighter plane that then turns into a giant letter T topped off by a pinball, it also helps the audience imagine that they’re experiencing a milder version of the psychedelic sensations that our deaf, dumb, and blind hero is experiencing.

With a star-studded cast led by Who frontman Roger Daltrey, it feels like everybody who was somebody in the 70s is in the movie. Ann-Margret and Oliver Reed get the juiciest roles after Daltrey as Tommy’s mom and step-father (with the former getting one especially unforgettable scene involving a suspiciously-shaped pillow), but everyone from Tina Turner to Jack Nicholson pops up in bit roles as well. Yet for all these great talents, the undisputed show stealer has to be Sir Elton John in his narrative film debut as the Pinball Wizard. He may appear in only one scene, but his flashy rendition of the Who tune, along with his piano-pinball machine and 4-foot-high Doc Martens, makes it one of the most iconic moments of the movie. 

“Whereas other filmmakers might have been hard-pressed to tell a story as ambitious and far-reaching as this one without any dialogue whatsoever, Russell appears perfectly comfortable realizing the film’s plot through aural and visual sensation rather than conventional narrative techniques.”

Incredibly, Sir Elton’s attire is far from the craziest thing about the film. Covering a timespan from the tumultuous 1940s to the uncertain 70s, the movie touches upon everything from war, rock and roll, and organized religion to drug use, child abuse, and, of course, pinball. As you can tell from this motley assortment of topics, the movie’s interests range from the trivial to the ghastly yet through it all, the tone consistently remains one of farcical camp. Some might be taken aback at the idea that Russell could treat such grim subjects with such levity, but his tongue-in-cheek approach works splendidly in the movie’s wild world.

A phantasmagorical assault on the senses, Tommy is a cinematic experience like no other with a surprisingly spiritual message and a rocking soundtrack.


Crimes of Passion

Crimes of Passion (1984)

A blip on the radar of pop culture compared to the preceding films, Crimes of Passion is one of Russell’s more restrained (by Russellian standards at least) and thus more unusual offerings. Similar to Altered States, the project was written by an American screenwriter who initially approached other big names for it. While figures like John Frankenheimer, John Carpenter, and even Cher expressed interest in Barry Sandler’s screenplay, its explicit content kept it from being produced until Roger Corman’s New World Pictures picked it up. It was around this time that Sandler’s agent got the idea of presenting the script to Russell, who apparently saw in it a story that put the “drama” in erotic drama. 

Feeling at times more like a play than a feature film, the movie is driven more by character interaction than any overarching plot. For sure, there are various story threads running throughout but the film jumps from point to point as it pleases, sacrificing overall narrative cohesion in favor of interpersonal drama. Following the lives of Joanna, a fashion designer who works as a prostitute at night, and two men – one a family man tasked with surveilling her and the other a delusional vagrant who styles himself a man of the cloth – who want her, the movie deals with the existential dread the characters face and the facades they put on to cope with it. Whether it be Joanna leading a double life as “China Blue” or Bobby the family man stepping into the role of private investigator to avoid dealing with his failing marriage, the characters treat life like a stage and play parts that allow them to forget themselves.

All three leads are sufficient in their roles, if somewhat unevenly so. Kathleen Turner (the voice of Who Framed Roger Rabbit’s Jessica Rabbit) brings a suitable amount of flexibility and nuance to her character, creating subtle distinctions between Joanna and her China Blue persona. John Laughlin, while credible as the “boy scout”-like Bobby, is the weakest link here, with him lapsing into awkward, stilted line deliveries in some of the more dramatic scenes. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Anthony Perkins (Psycho’s very own Norman Bates) absolutely kills it as the “Reverend” Peter Shayne. Hooking viewers from the very moment he bursts on-screen, Perkins enacts a superbly psychotic performance that might even give his turn as Bates a run for its money.

“…the movie deals with the existential dread the characters face and the facades they put on to cope with it. Whether it be Joanna leading a double life as ‘China Blue’ or Bobby the family man stepping into the role of private investigator to avoid dealing with his failing marriage, the characters treat life like a stage and play parts that allow them to forget themselves.”

While more grounded in reality than Tommy or Altered States, the film bears many of Russell’s stylistic touches. Colorful lights illuminate streets and characters alike, with the neon signs that brighten China Blue’s otherwise shady room giving it a beautifully hypnagogic vibe. Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman (who previously collaborated with Russell on 1975’s Lisztomania, which I previously wrote about in another post) contributes a synth-heavy score that, in its own, gloriously trashy way, suits the movie and its moody story well. There’s even a characteristically Russell freak-out or two thrown in for good measure, although none quite reach the level of either of the two previous entries. 

Flawed like the characters it revolves around, Crimes of Passion still manages to enchant audiences with its stronger performances, kitschy sensibilities, and melancholic soul. 

On a more frivolous note, I would like to submit that Perkins’ performance in the below scene more than makes up for any shortcomings the film has. Potential spoilers are present, so view with caution!


Lair of the White Worm

The Lair of the White Worm (1988)

Made as part of a deal with Vestron Pictures to secure funding for a prequel to Russell’s earlier Women in Love, The Lair of the White Worm is adapted from the Bram Stoker novel of the same name. Sadly for Stoker, Russell didn’t care much for the book and proceeded to remake it in his own, eccentric image. What audiences got out of it is a film that blurs the lines between folk horror, experimental cinema, and sex comedy. We also get a very unique take on vampire lore that makes the sparkling bloodsuckers of Twilight look like Klaus Kinski (okay, now that’s just hyperbole on my part).

Lording over the film is Amanda Donohoe, cast as the devious Lady Sylvia Marsh. A most odd sort of vampire, Marsh is more serpentine than batlike and worships Dionin, a pagan snake god and the worm of the movie’s title. From engaging in witty repartee with neighbors to hypnotizing unsuspecting ladies with her soothing voice, Donohoe as Lady Marsh ranges from irresistibly flirtatious to downright creepy. Standing in her way are two surprisingly recognizable faces: romcom heartthrob Hugh Grant as Lord D’Ampton and Dr. Who himself, Peter Capaldi, as archaeologist Angus Flint. Both are exceptionally likable in their roles, with Grant bringing an appealing refinement to the lord and Capaldi giving Angus an endearing fearlessness that befits the character’s Scottish background. 

As a horror film made for a studio, it makes sense that White Worm hews to traditional narrative convention and mainly relies on dialogue to push the plot forward. Luckily, the actors work so well together that they’re able to keep viewers consistently engaged in the story and make them invested in the characters. The palpable chemistry between the cast members is further evidenced by the number of exchanges caught in one take, with entire conversations unfolding as naturally as they do in real life without so much as a cut to close-up. A good example sees Angus and Lord D’Ampton having an extended discussion at a table as their friend Mary (Sammi Davis) dials a phone. After Angus and D’Ampton finish their conversation, the camera carefully zooms in on Mary as she starts talking on the phone, effectively capturing two scenes in one. 

“From engaging in witty repartee with neighbors to hypnotizing unsuspecting ladies with her soothing voice, Donohoe as Lady Marsh ranges from irresistibly flirtatious to downright creepy.”

Straightforward as the story is, it’s still a horror film, and a Ken Russell horror film at that! This means we get some delightfully strange sequences, including several venom-induced hallucinations that involve nuns and ungodly things being done to them. One scene, however, depicts an erotic dream of D’Ampton’s in which the leading ladies of the film are dressed like airplane stewardesses and fight over him. Wacky stuff, and it’s all impeccably accompanied by Stanislas Syrewicz’s score. Boasting enough synthesized goodness to make Wendy Carlos green with envy, Syrewicz’s music accentuates the movie’s alternately ominous and absurd temperament.

Though it shows its low-budget towards the end, Lair of the White Worm is an undeniably amusing and undeniably kooky variation on vampire movies: you know, precisely the kind to expect from Russell!


The Devils

The Devils (1971)

Considered by many to be Russell’s most infamous film – something that, considering the competition, is quite the honor – The Devils is also one that many people haven’t seen. This is due to how hard it is to find the darn movie, a state of affairs that goes back to the firestorm of controversy that engulfed the film upon release.

Based partly on Aldous Huxley’s retelling of alleged demonic possessions in Loudon, France, the production was decried as distasteful and blasphemous even by secular critics. Even Roger Ebert, hardly a poster child for moral panic and outrage, was offended by the film enough to give it a rare rating of zero stars. This led to the movie being banned in many countries, with it remaining difficult to watch to this day. It’s a real shame because once viewers get past the graphic material (which, in fairness, there’s quite a lot of), they will find themselves engrossed in an intellectually-stimulating story filled with drama and political intrigue.

The second collaboration between Russell and Oliver Reed, the film is carried as much by Reed’s performance as it is by its shocking sights. He is cocky but charismatic as Urbain Grandier, alienating viewers with his wanton womanizing but winning them back over with his efforts to defend the town’s independence and religious plurality against the caesaropapist schemes of Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) and his followers. Grandier may be chauvinistic and arrogant – qualities that Reed seems to embody quite naturally – but he not only acknowledges that he has these traits but also acknowledges them as sins, demonstrating a moral awareness and conviction that his enemies never really do.

Grandier’s machismo is rendered all the more saliently by the way the movie portrays his opponents, casting them as a cabal of simpering fops united in conspiracy against him. The Baron De Laubardemont (Dudley Sutton) struts around in frilly outfits, Richelieu (too fey to be saddled with the cruel burden of walking) is carted around by dutiful nuns, and King Louis XVIII (Graham Armitage) looks and acts more like a contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race than the real-life monarch. The only villain to not receive this treatment is Father Barre (For Your Eyes Only’s Michael Gothard), a witch hunter who is as hysterical as the women he is trying to exorcize. Coincidentally, he is also the only villain shown to have sexual relations with a woman, a fact that notably sets him apart from his queer-coded co-conspirators.

“Grandier may be chauvinistic and arrogant – qualities that Reed seems to embody quite naturally – but he not only acknowledges that he has these traits but also acknowledges them as sins, demonstrating a moral awareness and conviction that his enemies never really do.”

As interesting as its LGBT undertones and multifaceted performances are, The Devils owes its reputation to its scandalous visuals more than anything else. In classic Russell fashion, the movie mixes sacrilegious and sensual imagery to give us such lovely sights as nuns sexually assaulting a crucifix, one masturbating a candle, and, in the delirious mind of a sex-starved abbess (played by Vanessa Redgrave of all people), Grandier stepping into the role of Jesus, climbing down from the cross, and violently taking her. Images like these are sure to get a rise (whether figurative or literal depends on one’s preferences and peccadilloes) out of viewers, but the single most powerful image in the film has to be the final shot. As Grandier’s wife (Gemma Jones) climbs over the demolished town wall, the camera tilts up to show the countryside covered in platforms bearing the corpses of Protestants, enemies of the state in Richelieu’s brave new France. A sign that no one and nothing stands between Loudon and the cardinal, it’s a darkly fitting note to end on.

That rare kind of film that manages to be as thought-provoking as it is provocative, The Devils is an intriguing meditation on religion, sexuality, and politics brought to discordant, dazzling life the way only a mad genius like Russell could.