Certain horror films live and die by the recognizability of their creatures and visuals, basing the elements in a distinct reality. Peter Jackson’s fantastic Dead Alive is known for the lively and innovated depiction of truly posing the human body by way of infection and a little bit of mysticism. Stuart Gordon’s Reanimator is known for basing its grey-skinned reanimations in science and logic, like maybe this could just be possible. Wes Craven’s Nightmare On Elm Street is known for bringing nightmares to life and making a distinct separation from what is real and what is a dream. But what about a horror film where its phantasmal creatures and visuals are never set in stone, if they exist or not, and if the “real” world the characters live in is just as undefined. Thus leading us to 1990’s Jacob’s Ladder, where I needed to fight to figure out what is real.
Jacob’s Ladder was directed by Adrian Lyne, whose subject for films is typically about the disparage and division between married couples, seen through film’s history with things like Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal, and Unfaithful. Basic fair “Romance Drama’s” is something that I usually stay far away from to protect my sanity. It is almost a blessing that he decided to mix the bottle of Drama with then substitute Horror in Jacob’s Ladder because it almost seems like a fluke. A fluke created by writer Bruce Joel Rubin, known for making the ghost story popular again in the often parodied but will never watch again film Ghost. Bruce Joel Rubin certainly plays heavily on what makes this film different.
During Vietnam of the seventies, private Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) barbs crass dick and masturbation jokes with the rest of his platoon. But suddenly as they sit under thatched roofs and suffer the country’s heat, the men start to feel the effect of an unknown affliction. Some scream out in pain as others convulse and hemorrhage on the hard ground. They are attacked, but they seem to be almost fighting themselves. Jacob breaks off into the forest where he is stabbed in the gut with a bayonet; Jacob then wakes up to find himself practically alone on a nighttime train. Once the train stops at the station, he starts to see quick, almost unreal, images cross his vision. These weird things only continue as he tries in vain to leave the station (all the exits are locked); he finally finds a way home by following the tracks home.
When he arrives home he finds himself met at the door by both his dog and partner Jezzie (Elizabeth Peña) who is concerned about why he was out so late. He explains what happened at the station and later falls asleep. The next day the viewer finds out that Jacob is living with Jezzie, divorced from his first wife and kids, they work at the post office, , and he regularly attends therapy sessions with his chiropractor Louis (Danny Aiello) (by this point certain things clue the viewer that the film takes place during 1975, not that this is extremely important). But as is to be expected, the station was not an isolated incident, and Jacob continues to see unworldly images flash before his eyes making him fear that his sanity is being tampered with one moment at a time.
Instead of discussing the religious and spiritual implications of Jacob’s Ladder, I believe that even my four years of mandatory High School Theology might not do justice to the deeper religious undertones; but my moderate knowledge of the Silent Hill videogames, who took cues from Jacob’s Ladder, might suffice. Scenes like the underground station at the beginning of the film and its locked doors is just like parts of Silent Hill III where protagonist Heather Morrison’s route is manipulated by locked doors in the same fashion as Jacob’s. The quick but unsettling shots and miniscule details from Silent Hill reflect Jacob’s perspective of weird-goings-on taken from just the leads’ perspective. Even visual elements like the focus on hospitals translate between the two works.
Jacob’s Ladder spends time jumping between what may or may not be reality. During the course of the film, Jacob will wake up during different times of his life. From the present with Jezzie, to the past where he is still with his wife and kids, then back again like one was a dream of the other. This form of narration is usually called an “unreliable narrator”, a narrative theme that I feel works in favor of this film. As the viewer, I was just as confused as Jacob as to what was going on, be it whether his world was real or just a delusionary dream.
Pros: Tim Robbins portrayal of Jacob is fantastic, bringing an unexpected child-like demeanor to a man who is slowly being tormented out of his mind. He takes it slow, which works because Jacob is an interesting lead who I found enjoyment from by just watching him go about his day. The visuals are self-contained and are there to unsettle, not frighten as opposition. It knows when to play the soundtrack and when to keep it utterly silent. Certain shots kept me rewinding over and over just so see how effective they were a second or third time.
Cons: Jacob’s Ladder is one of those films where it is hard to find faults to point out. There is one scene though that I call “Sex With Satan” where they used strobe lights to keep the depiction hard to see clearly; I personally hate the use of strobe lighting in the same way that I hate heavily darkly lit shots in that if I am incapable of seeing something or it hurts to see, then it is a waste of film. The surprise ending might ruin the rewatchability for certain viewers (something that I can picture but am not effected by).
The 2010 Lions Gate reprint that I have only differs from the original 1998 release in that the box sleeve is different. Everything else, from the early DVD menus and features (remember Cast & Crew and Production Notes on the main menu?), to the disc cover that translates over onto programs like Media Player still depict the films famous use of head shaking Jacob. I just found this interesting. Jacob’s Ladder is by all means a fantastic film, with a feel like no other and acting that cannot be matched, this is truly without a doubt a good film. I cannot convince you to seek this one out more enough. Like a quick flicker in your vision you could swear was not natural, Jacob’s Ladder is just a collection of experiences.