Altered States - Featured

The New Old: Theatre/Absurd

Altered States (1980, Ken Russell) –  Altered States is one deeply strange beast of a movie. The experience is overwhelming; a collage of chatty, philosophical dialogue and surreal, evocative imagery. It’s what happens when you combine two talents as diverse and unique as screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky and director Ken Russell. Chayefsky provides endless existential verbal battles, while Russell dresses it up with blasphemous, bizarre, and somewhat campy imagery. It can be difficult to find a comfortable balance between the two competing authorial voices, yet with a story this complex and ambitious, it kind of works. Russell and Chayefsky joined forces to make one of those “what does it all mean?” movies and since it’s impossible for any artist to provide a satisfactory answer, seeing the ingenious writer and brilliant (if batshit insane) director combine their ideas is a blast no matter how muddy the waters get. It’s an existential, hallucinogenic, science fiction, horror, art film for the midnight movie crowd and if that doesn’t sound like an experience at least worth trying once, then I don’t know what is

William Hurt stars a Harvard scientist named Jessup who is fascinated by the hidden truths to be found in altered states of reality. At first he conducts experiments in isolation tanks, but when that doesn’t seem to go far enough, he finds a special mushroom from a primitive tribe used for spiritual journeys. He discovers that everyone who takes it has the same hallucinatory image that he hypothesizes could be a glimpse at the origin of cellular life. So he decides to combine the isolation tank and the drug and things go a little crazy, eventually transforming Hurt into a primitive caveman for a night of naked, hairy violence. Confused yet? Well imagine trying to digest that complex Chayefsky script (adapted from his own novel) when filtered through Russell’s distinct brand of visual pyrotechnics and perverse sexuality. Russell provides images like Jesus on the cross with a mutated goat head while Paddy throws in lines like Hurts girlfriend describing their sex as “feeling like I’m being harpooned by some raging monk in the act of receiving god.” So, we’re talking about two masters of excess at their most excessive, coming together for a pretty damn wild ride.

The genre trappings and philosophical concepts give Russell something to latch his unrelenting visual imagination onto and the hallucination scenes are amongst his most arresting and memorable work as a stylist. Chayefsky’s script provides just enough grounding and context for Russell to go buck wild, while the writer’s own insane ramblings ensure the visuals are all backed by ideas and aren’t just style for the sake of style (which always drags down Russell’s weakest projects). The director’s sly wit also gently mocks Chayefsky’s most out there conceits through gentle camp humor. It was enough for the legendary writer to take his name off of the film during the initial release, but eventually he changed his mind. Perhaps he’d stopped taking the drugs that must have inspired the script long enough to realize that a little tongue-in-cheek humor from Uncle Ken helped take the edge of his most pretentious diversions. Altered States is a bit too confused and over-the-top to label a masterpiece, but it is a fascinating curiosity from two creative minds swinging for the fences.

Warner Brothers’ new Blu-ray boasts an astounding transfer that shows off Russell’s mind-bending visual experiments in the finest form they’ve ever been seen. In a film this visual, that’s enough to change the overall experience dramatically. There are no special features, which is a shame because it would have been nice to hear at least one of the filmmakers explain what the hell they were thinking. Yet on the other hand, with a film like Altered States, would you really want to know? It’s a joy to be confounded by this experience and hearing that all get explained away in a few easily digestible ideas just isn’t quite as fun. (Phil Brown)

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Twelfth Night (1988, Kenneth Branagh and Paul Kafno) – Available in North America for the first time in over twenty years (despite UK releases from the decade past), Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of The Bard’s famed gender bending, metatextual, comedy of errors Twelfth Night (Or, As You Like It) with his highly influential Renaissance Theatre Company gets a welcome if decidedly low-fi release on DVD by way of A&E Home Entertainment. Equal parts reverential and daring, Branagh’s stripped down almost entirely single set constructed made for Thames Television helps to preserve another small part of Branagh’s Shakespearian legacy.

While Branagh makes the somewhat unpopular choice of using the entirety of the original text, he does manage to make a few key changes that manage to set the tale of mistaken identity among a pair of estranged twins apart from other staging. Taking what might be Shakespeare’s most mature comedy a step further, he and televised adaptor Kafno (who pretty much just told everyone where their marks would be for the camera movements) overplay the subtle melancholia and loss amid the silliness, and instead of going over the top with the material in a garish fashion, the wit becomes a lot drier than most stagings.   Branagh also incorporates a deeply touching musical element to the story (including a piece with a melody from Sir Paul McCartney) and moves the action from the specified summer setting to a bleak, cold, blue tinged Christmastime (which oddly makes sense since the play was first performed at the tail end of Christmastide despite the allusions to warmer weather).

The performances are excellent across the board, with Frances Barber and Christopher Hollis conveying Branagh’s revisions with great fluidity in the lead roles of Viola and Sebastian, respectively, and stage veterans Richard Briers and Caroline Langshire delightfully sending up their own images in their equally scheming, but oddly sympathetic takes on Malvolio and Olivia.

This version of the play probably hasn’t sounded better, but the video quality looks almost the exact same as a VHS counterpart. Also, aside from a brief and redundant timeline text about the history of The Bard, there’s a great, recent interview with Branagh looking back on the project, and he does offer some typically great insights about his love for the play, being flexible with Shakespearian traditions, and explaining some potentially unpopular changes. It’s not hard to believe that he couldn’t talk for longer than the twenty minutes that makes it to the DVD, but twenty minutes with a master like him still paints a pretty lovely picture. (Andrew Parker)

No Holds Barred (1989, Thomas J. Wright) – In the interest of full disclosure, I should let it be known now that I am a casual wrestling fan to this day. I will still watch from time to time, especially as Wrestlemania approaches. Even being a fan of the spectacle of wrestling, I can’t defend the 1989 film No Holds Barred (finally making its way to DVD from WWE Films who has finally reconciled it’s existence and since New Line and Warner Brothers finally decided they wanted nothing to do with it) in any way other than a so bad it is AMAZING way, but I can offer some slight perspective as to its general appeal amongst cult film aficionados.

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Everyone has days that take their toll; days where everything you try goes wrong, or you are dealt a crushing blow to your physical, social, sexual, financial or psychological well being. You feel so low that you swear your life is becoming a country song. You come home and throw your keys down on the table in disgust. No one is home and your cat is ignoring you. You open the fridge and find nothing but milk and condiments and the freezer holds only ice, frozen salmon, and that last Philly cheesesteak sandwich pocket in it’s half opened wrapping since you learned the first one was terrible enough on its own. Instead, you opt for ramen noodles made in an already dirty bowl and a pot of coffee because you can’t afford any kind of alcoholic or carbonated beverages. You slump down in a chair by the television staring off into space and thinking that you need to do something to break out of the rut you are in. You begin to think of things to watch that could make you happy, or make you laugh and feel better about yourself. In my darkest hours and in the most crippling of depressions, this is a movie that can bring me out of my funk.

At the height of then megastar Hulk Hogan’s popularity, a movie seemed like a can’t-miss proposal. WWE chairman Vince McMahon commissioned a script be made for Hogan, and so they were given a treatment for what was to become No Holds Barred. Vince and Hogan liked the story, but were unimpressed with the script itself. McMahon and Hogan then rewrote the entire script over the course of three days in a hotel room. I don’t know what the script looked like before that fateful day at the Doubletree Inn, but what came out of that room is a movie so terrible that it has become a camp classic. It’s a movie so idiotic that I could just show you the whole movie and end the column now. It is a movie like Plan 9 From Outer Space or Troll 2 that manages to be likable by being terrible. You feel bad for the people involved, and you almost want to forgive them.

It takes less than two minutes for the movie to go completely off the rails. The movie starts off with Hogan screaming and growling in slow motion and as far as I can tell, it was meant to be serious. Hogan plays Rip, who is the WWF champion in the film, which begs the question, if the company formerly known as the WWF produced this movie, why don’t they just have Hogan play himself? The film’s first gap in logic happens there, but the come at a pretty good clip after that.

Rip’s entire back story is set up in the first few minutes as he comes to the ring with his brother Randy, a young man with such an “aw shucks” attitude you just want to punch him in the face the moment you see him. Ever since their mother died Rip and Randy have been more than just brothers. The movie fails to go into specifics, but their relationship doesn’t make any sense. Randy looks nothing like his brother and seems to only be there to set up character motivation later in the movie.

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Much like Hogan was known for hulking up (where he seems defeated and mounts a miraculous comeback while being impervious to pain) and ripping his shirt, Rip has his own signature taunt: the Rip ‘Em hand gesture, which is nothing more than saying “I love you” in sign language. This further illustrates how out of touch with reality this movie is by assuming that the viewer knows less sign language than the average two year old.

The ridiculous nature of the film continues when we meet Brell (played by Kurt Fuller) who is the head of the World Television Network. Apparently, in this magical fantasy world, professional wrestling has made the only other network in the world more popular than Brell’s. Brell knows that in order to be competitive in today’s spandex and sweat marketplace, he needs to have Rip on his network.

Brell arranges a meeting with Rip and tries to entice him to jump ship by offering him a blank check. But Rip is such a man of high integrity that no amount of berating from Brell (even calling him a “jock ass” repeatedly can get him to cash in on his popularity. Rip’s disgust is punctuated in a classic scene where Rip stuffs the blank check down Brell’s throat and telling him “I won’t be around when this check clears.” Rip gives them the Rip ‘Em sign and leaves.

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On the way back from the meeting in a limo paid for by Brell, Rip is kidnapped and taken to a warehouse where a bunch of thugs have been hired to do something to Rip. It’s not really clear if they were going to kill him or beat him senseless, but their plan fails horribly as Rip is able to burst through the metal fucking roof of the limousine and lays waste to everyone in sight. He even makes the driver shit himself in the one scene the movie is best known for.

Needless to say, Brell is shit out of luck in more ways than one. Brell creates “Battle of the Tough Guys”, essentially televised barroom brawls, and soon finds his star. A large black man named Zeus (played by Tim “Tiny” Lister, better known for his role in the Friday films and as the president in The Fifth Element) who looks like the evil twin of the guy from The Green Mile. He allegedly has just gotten out of prison for killing a man in the ring after their match was over. He also has a patch of hair on the side of his head shaved into the shape of a Z.

Still not satisfied with his own success, Brell sends a corporate spy named Samantha, played by Joan Severance, to try and seduce Rip and cause him to… well, actually, I don’t know what the point of having her there is other than to have her turn against her former employer and fall in love with Rip. Samantha falls for Rip because… well… I don’t even have the slightest clue. Is it his love of charitable work? His way to stand up to snooty waiters in French restaurants when he finds out he can’t order a hamburger? Maybe it was his astute observation when they find themselves sharing a room together and saying that she has “set up more walls that I ever could.” Rip gives her the Rip ‘Em sign and leaves.

His plan having failed, Brell sends someone to take out Samantha, but just like a superhero that happened to be in the area on his motorcycle, Rip is there to save the day by grabbing the aggressor, dragging him through town on the front of his bike, and throwing him through a tree. Rip gives him the Rip ‘Em sign and leaves.

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Despite attempting to assault and possibly rape or kill his quasi-girlfriend, this is still not enough to goad Rip into accepting a fight against Zeus, so Zeus decides to beat the holy hell out of Rip’s brother after one of his matches.

The outcome of the movie is never in question, with Rip being forced to face Zeus in a match without any rules, but it has to be seen to be believed or appreciated. The movie was enough of a success to turn a small profit (opening only behind Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade at the box office), but as with everything Hogan touches, you get the sense he thought it was going to be a lot bigger than it was. McMahon and Hogan must have though that this would somehow legitimize profession wrestling, but they probably set back it’s progression by about twenty years.

In conclusion, this is a film that probably never should have seen the light of day, as evidenced by only having a cheesy photo gallery on hand as the lone DVD special feature. They don’t even bother getting into the time they tried to bring Lister, an actor with no previous wrestling experience, into the WWE fold to actually wrestle Hogan. They seem to have learned from their mistakes, but kudos to them for not shying away from them. (Hogan’s long term deal with their rivals TNA Wrestling probably helps.) It feels like it was written by a six year old that has no concept of reality whatsoever and has a penchant for jokes involving bodily functions. As awful as it is, however, it still stands as a testament to just how shameless Hulk Hogan is, as well as standing on it’s own as one of the best bad movies ever made. (Andrew Parker)

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