Wrestling with the idea of God after the death of his father, Professor Eddie Jessup (Hurt) obsessively researches the idea of altered human states by partaking of hallucinatory drugs and locking himself in a sensory deprivation tank. Gradually his weird visions lead to a physical change.
Not one to let slow-building tension and mystery get in the way of wild flourishes of extremism and shock, Ken Russell hit upon a story that more or less handled his structural excesses and tendency toward blasphemy. The story, based on a novel by Paddy Chayefsky’s who also provided the script before completely disowning the film, is, frankly nuts, but delivered with such a gloriously outrageous sense of visual abandon its like a grand, daft paean to 2001’s psychedelic showpiece by way of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
The idea that lurks behind all the sensory lunacy, is that man will literally regress without all the outward elements of life be they love, science or even God. William Hurt, who is determinedly po-faced throughout even when required to parade about like a rabid monkey (the primal state he reverts to), is the scientist who mixes ramped up Peyote with sensory deprivation and experiences a special effects light show that still looks pretty out-there decades later. Russell wants the screen to assume the outer limits of human experience, although one might suggest Jessup could have achieved his goal just as easily by watching an incessant loop of the director’s back catalogue.
Religious iconography, defiled and horrendous (a seven eyed goat?), seethe before our eyes just to makes sure beyond its preposterous science there is still enough to offend people. An effective enough style that has been remixed for everything from Jacob’s Ladder to Event Horizon. Look out too for a weenie Drew Barrymore, still shy of E.T..
When back in “reality” the film manages to maintain a classically doom-laden sense of tampering with forces beyond our control, and Russell plays with the formula with a naughty wit – even framing a proposal scene, between Hurt and Blair Brown (who spends most of the film without her clothes on) in a psychiatric ward as a truculent loon is force-fed hallucinogens. It’s just that kind of movie.
It's got Russell's trademark eccentricity (read: slight bonkers-ness) all over it, which you may take as a warning or a recommendation.