Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
Written by Bruce Joel Rubin
Directed by Adrian Lyne
My wife’s first remarks as the credits rolled were, “That was intense.” Now, it takes a lot to phase my wife when it comes to movies. Between the amount of horror cinema I’ve exposed her to and the limited sentimentality, she has towards many films, she is a tough nut to crack. I’ve only known her to weep at two movies, Dancer in the Dark and The Elephant Man, otherwise, she appreciates the pictures but doesn’t get too deeply emotionally invested in them. I tell you all this as a way to begin talking about this heartbreaking existential horror film, a movie that the first time I viewed it, my maturity wasn’t at the level to really understand what the filmmakers were saying. This time around, I agreed with my wife, I was shaken and found a deep appreciation for the performances and themes in this movie.
Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) was serving in Vietnam in 1971 when his unit comes under a surprise attack. In the chaos of the fight, Singer watches comrades die and is bayonetted himself. Four years later, he’s living in New York City, working as a postal clerk, separated from his wife and living with his girlfriend, Jezebel (Elizabeth Pena). Jacob starts suffering from flashbacks, lost time and discovers a lot of things he remembers about his past might not be real at all. Jacob believes he’s seeing demons, grotesque figures in the shadows of the city stalking him.
Screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin’s original script was much more Christian in its imagery of demons, but Adrian Lyne convinced him to conjure up a new image of these creatures. Lyne looked to photography done of thalidomide victims, the paintings of Francis Bacon, and the work of artists like H.R. Giger and Diane Arbus. The result is an atmosphere of horror that doesn’t sync up with the audience’s expectations, particularly in 1990. Ridley Scott’s Alien is one of the few popular pictures to have delved into this slow burn, intense horror tone, and even then, it is very different from what Lyne is doing.
Tim Robbins does an excellent job of playing Jacob, he’s charming and warm. You genuinely want things to work out for this person and quickly become invested in his peril. The horror here is heady and psychological; early on, you realize Jacob’s isn’t under as much as a physical threat as he is an emotional & spiritual one. There are moments where the movie walks that dangerous line of dream sequence or something actually happening to the character, and it does topple over into the absurdity side often. I think the technical aspects of the horror visuals are stellar, but they don’t always service the narrative in the best way.
Where the story works is when it focuses on Jacob’s losses and pain through his adult life. The short sequence where he wakes up in his bed with his wife and sees his deceased son is heartbreaking. And then this is followed by a moment of Jacob actually waking up and the look of torment on his face realizing that this brief encounter was just a fever dream breaks you. I have a feeling most audience members will figure out what is happening to Jacob in the first act of the movie, but I don’t think knowing the “twist” ruins the emotional resonance of the picture. The third act still hits like a brick wall and leaves you reeling.
Jacob’s Ladder was an essential shift in horror aesthetics at a time when shlocky movies and B-slasher pics dominated the genre. It reminded us of the 1970s style of cerebral horror, where we took time to know the character before plunging them into Hell. The film was a significant influence on the Silent Hill video game franchise, and you can see its impacts on the zeitgeist in pictures like The Sixth Sense and Se7en. While its flaws are very apparent from the perspective of a modern filmgoer, it reminds us of how deeply moving, and intimate good psychological horror can be.