With a cult-like legacy outliving it’s overlooked release, director Adrian Lyne‘s 1990 metaphysical arthouse horror film “Jacob’s Ladder” exists in a striking, surreal world all of its own as we follow a traumatized Vietnam War survivor Tim Robbins who experiences an ever escalating series of nightmarish visions. One of those movies which simply recouped its budget then disappeared, the influences of the film can be felt for years to come in work as diverse as Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (which explores similar themes of transformation) and the Silent Hill video game series, who’ve cited Lyne’s film as a major influence. Incredibly imaginative in its production techniques with genuinely disturbing design and a tightly built script, you can safely ignore the execrable recent reboot and watch (or rewatch) the original, nightmarish vision brought to screen as part of your 31 Days of Horror.
To start: “Jacob’s Ladder” is a literal fever dream, with the fractured narrative bouncing between the Vietnam War and New York, 1971 and 1975. In Vietnam, Jacob’s company is assaulted along the Mekong Delta, and strange things being to happen to his fellow soldiers as they’re cut down in front of his eyes. Suddenly, Jacob awakens in the New York City Subway, glancing a Lovecraftian tentacle protruding from a sleeping homeless person. Jacob is increasingly beset by disturbing experiences and surreal visions, including the iconic “faceless” men who follow him. He attempts to contact his regular doctor at the local VA hospital, but after first being told that there is no record of him ever being a patient there, Jacob is told that his doctor has died in a car explosion, one of many ominous mysteries that begin to occur in his life. Later at a party, a psychic reads Jacob’s palm… telling him he’s already dead, hurtling Jacob into a growing spiral of delusion as he tries to hold on to reality.
The plot twists and turns through time as Jacob desperately tries to solve the mystery of why these visions are plaguing him. Director Lyne downplayed script writer Bruce Joel Rubin’s original “intimidating” biblical imagery and instead unleashes Jacob’s nightmares in an ingenious homage to the styles of Francis Bacon, the Tibetan Book Of the Dead and the Body Horror maestro himself, David Cronenberg. In his screenplay, Rubin used traditional imagery of demons and hell, flashes of which do still pop up in the infamous party scene, However, Lyne decided to use images similar to thalidomide deformities and war injuries to achieve a greater shock effect, which gives the film an unsettling and disturbingly realistic feel. A stark departure from most genre filmmakers, Lyne used entirely in-camera effects, with no post production, adding to the realism of each scene. According to the director’s DVD commentary, test screening’s were “too overwhelming” for the audience. In response, about 20 minutes of disturbing scenes, mostly from the last third of the film, were removed from the final cut, since made available on the complete Blu-Ray edition.
For all its monstrous scenes of horror. “Jacob’s Ladder” is a profoundly spiritual film (after all “Jacob’s Ladder” is literally the bridge between Heaven and Earth). Scriptwriter Rubin got the initial idea after experiencing a bad acid trip in the ’60s, as he embarked on a spiritual quest spending several years meditating in Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan. Interviewed at the time of release, he remarked: “If you watch this film with your mind, trying to understand what’s going on, you’re going to be torn into a million pieces”. The performances of Tim Robbins (who at the time was a semi-known character actor doing mostly popcorn comedies) and the late Elizabeth Pena anchor the story in dramatic realism, rather than in the b-movie hysteria that a lesser film would indulge in.
The horror of the movie would be in the revelation that hope is hell’s final torment, that life is a dream that ends over and over with the final truth: that life was never real, that we are all creatures trapped in eternal suffering and damnation.
More serious in tone and subject than most Horror films, Jacob’s Ladder delivers seriously disturbing images that stick with you longer after the credits. Available to watch on Shudder, check out the trailer below if you’ve not yet seen this cinematic nightmare.