Altered States on Film

Altered States on Film

One of my favorite things about watching films is riding the wave of emotions right along the character as their journey evolves with the narrative.  How a director chooses to communicate these, is what makes or breaks a film. Maybe love is expressed through a music swell and dramatic embrace in the rain, or anger with an off-kilter camera and the physical destruction of a set.

The depiction of smaller, more intimate interior emotions – anxiety, disorientation, mystical revelation, and even the elusive psychedelic experience - though, is far more interesting. To communicate these ethereal states, directors tend to experiment with various camera effects, expressive set designs, and auditory distortion.

An early, and sophisticated, example of this can be seen in the 1920s film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The film follows an insane hypnotist who uses others to commit murders. The story is told from his unreliable and twisted perspective and the set design reflects this distortion. The movie is entirely shot against an elaborate black and white set dominated by sharp-pointed forms, spirals, dead ends and tilted walls.


As German film professor, Anton Kaes wrote, "The style of German Expressionism allowed the filmmakers to experiment with filmic technology and special effects and to explore the twisted realm of repressed desires, unconscious fears, and deranged fixations"*

Starting in the 1960s, at the peak of America’s fascination with psychedelics, directors sought to depict the emotional and physical state of a trip.

Most people think of Alice in Wonderland as the psychedelic film. I don’t think it counts. Lewis Carrol never did psychedelics, nor did she intend the film to depict a psychedelic trip. Nevertheless, many have drawn inspiration from it.


One of the earlier depictions of psychedelics on film is The Trip (1967). It has everything you would expect it to have: body paint, crystals, that oil-and-water projection thing, kaleidoscopes, strobe lights, smoke machines, midgets in a ferris wheel and Denis Hopper. It’s the quintessential “FAR OUT” 1960s image of a psychedelic trip.

My favorite one, though is 2001: A Space Odyssey. While the film is not explicitly about psychedelics, it illustrates many of the themes associated with psychedelics. Blasting off, loss of the physical self, rebirth, seeing time as an illusion and meeting your creator. It’s visuals, while surreal side step the trite signifiers of altered consciousness ubiquitous in the 1960s.

I first saw Holy Mountain at a midnight screening when I was 17 at the IFC Center on West 4th street. This also happens to be where the film made its debut on November 29, 1973. This might be my favorite, but mostly because I was 17, a freshman in college, reading Derrida and discovering the world of conscience altering substances.

Like 2001, Holy Mountain is not about psychedelics but rather about the revelations they impart. The film can very briefly be summarized as a man’s quest for purpose in a chaotic universe. Ego death, Immortality, Enlightenment, and re-birth are physically represented through stunningly beautiful, elaborate and original visuals. My favorite scene is the Alchemist’s throne.


Fun fact: As preparation for the filming of Holy Mountain, Jordowsky and his wife consulted with a Japanese Zen master who instructed him to take LSD for spiritual exploration. He also administered psilocybin mushrooms to the actors during a climatic death and rebirth scene.

Lastly, I want to talk about Void by Gaspar Noe. The film is entirely shot from the POV of Oscar, the protagonist of the story. Within the early moments of the film, he is shot and killed by the Tokyo police while trying to dump drugs down the toilet. From this point forward we look through Oscar’s eyes as he floats above the Tokyo lights cape, while recounting the important moments of his life. This movie is not only about the effects of DMT on the mind, but about death, dying, and rebirth.


Some honorable mentions that did not make this list, but are visually striking include: Altered States, Fear and Loathing, Performance, Inherent Vice, Southland Tales, Zabriskie Point, Suspiria, The Fountain, Lucifer Rising, Waking Life, Spirited Away and Psych-Out


* Kaes, Anton (2006). "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: Expressionism and Cinema". Masterpieces of Modernist Cinema. Bloomington, IndianaIndiana University PressISBN 0253347718.

Escape From Reality

Escape From Reality

Issue 09: Flight Instructions

Issue 09: Flight Instructions