Do you know Ken Russell? He’s one of my favorite directors from childhood. I heard he was totally mad and he passed away in 2011 at 84. My first introduction to Ken Russell was on Hong Kong television in the 80s when I saw the trailer for Altered States and I couldn’t get it out of my mind. VHS was still a very new technology when I was growing up in Hong Kong and it took years until we immigrated to Canada to track down a copy of Altered States.
The movie blew my mind because it was truly a film that jumped out of every genre that tried to claim it—horror, science fiction, thriller, drama, drug movie…etc. Altered States created a genre of its own.
The movie both engages and transcends every genre’s expectations… and remains a compelling and cohesive film. It’s a truly brilliant and mind-blowing film that has kept me watching it again and again till today.
After all these years, I still wonder what this movie is about. I think it’s about the collision of drug use, evolution, love, relationships and the passion for truth through the humanity and subjectivity of the main character, a professor played brilliantly by William Hurt. Still I don’t think I’ve done justice to tell you what a unique film it is. Altered States is a historical necessity—made by Ken Russell at that time in that mind frame beyond the cultural context of 1980.
After Altered States, I went back to watch The Devils which is a classic horror about the witch hunting of the Catholic Church with unforgettable performances from Glenda Jackson and Oliver Reed.
Just last week, I had a screening of Gothic, one of Ken Russell’s three pictures financed back-to-back by the 80s powerhouse Vestron Pictures. As a teenager, I saw the movie about five times in the theater even though every critic in Montreal slammed it. For me, it was one of the first meta-horror films about the creation of the genre—how Mary Shelley “conceived” Frankenstein.
Our fingers hovering over a Ouija board, my friends and I tried to summon Ken Russell but kept getting some random spirits with robot names like R2D2. Ken Russell never came to talk to us that night… but we watched his movie on an out-of-print DVD from Artisan Home Entertainment that I had to track down at the last minute at Amoeba in Hollywood.
Ken Russell, I love you.