Eddie Jessup ( William Hurt) is a scientist obsessed with discovering mankind's true role in the universe. To this end, he submits himself to a series of mind-expanding experiments. By enclosing himself in a sensory-deprivation chamber and taking hallucinogenic drugs, Jessup hopes to explore different levels of human consciousness, but instead is devolved into an apelike monster.
Based on John Lilly's research on isolation tanks.
In his autobiography, Director Ken Russell said he tried mushrooms during the making of the film, which resulted in a bad trip.
In a 1981 interview with the New York Times, Blair Brown said many of the actors and crew tried out the isolation tank. William Hurt actually hallucinated, while Blair Brown found it very peaceful.
Paddy Chayefsky had not seen the film before he took his name off the credits.
Author Paddy Chayefsky disowned this movie. Even though the dialogue in the screenplay was almost verbatim from his novel he reportedly objected to the over the top shouting of his words by the actors.
At one point, Eddie Jessup mentions the work of "Tart, Ornstein and Deikman." This is a reference to Charles Tart, Robert Ornstein and Arthur Deikman, all of whom wrote books about altered states of consciousness, and all of whom have been involved in modern esoteric spiritual movements, such as the ‘Gurdjieff Work’.
Some of the footage of "hell" in the hallucinations are from the movie "Dante's Inferno" (1935) taken from a dream sequence.
One of the few films to be released theatrically with the "Megasound" sound system format. Megasound was a movie theater sound system created by Warner Bros in the early 1980's. It was used to enhance the premiere engagements of a handful of Warner features. Theaters equipped for Megasound had additional speakers mounted on the left, right and rear walls of the auditorium. Selected soundtrack events with lots of low-frequency content (thuds, crashes, explosions, etc) were directed to these speakers at very high volume, creating a visceral effect intended to thrill the audience.
Eddie Jessup: I can't live with it Emily, the pain is unbearable.
Emily Jessup: We all live with it. That unbearable terror is what makes us such singular creatures. We hide from it, we succumb to it, mostly we defy it! We build fragile little structures to keep it out. We love, we raise families, we work, we make friends. We write poems...
Emily Jessup: Defy it, Eddie. You made it real. You can make it unreal. If you love me... If you love me, Eddie, DEFY IT!
Eddie Jessup: Memory is energy! It doesn't disappear - it's still in there. There's a physiological pathway to our earlier consciousnesses. There has to be; and I'm telling you it's in the goddamned limbic system.
Mason Parrish: You're a whacko!
Eddie Jessup: What's whacko about it, Mason? I'm a man in search of his true self. How archetypically American can you get? We're all trying to fulfill ourselves, understand ourselves, get in touch with ourselves, face the reality of ourselves, explore ourselves, expand ourselves. Ever since we dispensed with God we've got nothing but ourselves to explain this meaningless horror of life.