Director: Adrian Lyne
Studios: Carolco Pictures, TriStar Pictures
Starring: Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Peña, Danny Aiello; ft. Macaulay Culkin (uncredited), Jason Alexander, Lewis Black
Tagline: The most frightening thing about Jacob Singer's nightmare is that he isn't dreaming.
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: horror, psychological thriller, mystery, conspiracy, drama
Scare score: B+
Plot overview: Several years after his deployment in Vietnam, Jacob Singer (Robbins) still has flashbacks to a traumatic battle that left him gravely wounded. Now living in New York City with his girlfriend Jezzie (Peña), Jacob misses his ex-wife and children and continues to dream about them, especially the youngest boy, Gabe (Culkin), who died in an accident. Around this time, Jacob begins to have nightmarish visions of "demons"— vibrating, featureless faces and slimy, tentacled monsters. After several near-death encounters, Jacob reunites with several former members of his platoon and the men begin to seek answers from the army about what really happened in Vietnam.
The first time I tried watching Jacob's Ladder was back in high school with a friend who shared my love for horror movies, but I regret to say I fell asleep. I don't know what took me so long to finally come back to it, but I'm so, so glad I did.
This movie is excellent. Written by Bruce Joel Rubin (Ghost— also from 1990! Big year for him.), it took a while for the project to get off the ground given its graphic and niche metaphysical, religious, and military nature. Rubin said the general idea for the film came from a dream he had about being trapped in the New York City subway, but it's clear how his experimentation with LSD and subsequent time spent hiking and meditating in countries like Tibet and India helped inspire the final project. The title is a reference to a Biblical story about a ladder leading to heaven, and themes of both life, death, purgatory, heaven, and hell are constant throughout the movie. Perhaps this is most emphasized during the scene where Jacob's trusted chiropractor and friend Louis Denardo (Aiello) imparts some wisdom from 14th-century mystic Meister Eckhart:
"Eckhart saw Hell too. He said: 'The only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won't let go of life, your memories, your attachments. They burn them all away. But they're not punishing you,' he said. 'They're freeing your soul. So, if you're frightened of dying and ... you're holding on, you'll see devils tearing your life away. But if you've made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the earth.'"
The underlying themes of the movie may be deep, but if you're looking for a good scare without having to think about it, this movie is still an excellent choice. From the first scenes of the film, there is a near-constant juxtaposition of action and stillness, violence and peace, gore and sex that will leave you unsettled during the entire viewing. The filmmakers do a wonderful job of transporting us back to the New York City of the 1970s: a grungy, frightening place even without hallucinations and demons. In many ways, this does feel a bit like Ghost and even Fatal Attraction, which Lyne directed three years earlier, but the horror here is different and much more pervasive and not for the faint of heart. In fact, they had to cut upwards of 20 minutes that were considered too disturbing or depressing for audiences. I NEED to find these and watch them all!
One of my favorite movies of all time is The Shawshank Redemption, so it was great to see Tim Robbins in a different kind of role. In fact, I couldn't help but think how great it was to see him in a movie that didn't hide how tall he is (6'5"!). Robbins is an excellent actor, and his subdued manner often allows the audience to process the horror of his present situation right alongside him as the mystery of the plot continues to unfold.
At first, the horror in this movie appears in the form of suspenseful situations (now I will think of this every time I'm on the subway) and the masterfully done demons. Faceless and pulsating, and always out of frame before we can get a closer look at them. The gory imagery of the movie was inspired by the works of artist Francis Bacon and would go on to play a huge impact in the development of both Silent Hill and American Horror Story: Asylum. Next, we are handed a conspiracy theory so apropos of the Cold War and Vietnam era that adds to the growing paranoia of the film. Little by little, however, we start to lose touch with reality along with Jacob until we are truly faced with the decision of just how horrifying—or liberating—the truth may be.
Fun fact: Tom Hanks almost played the role of Jacob. I think he would have been great, too.
This film is really excellent. There is something about the grungy and desolate feel of New York in the '70s and the absolute existential failure that was Vietnam that adds a sort of desperate emptiness to the movie and leaves it characters searching for life and answers through parties, music, sex, palm readings, and ultimately through the final mystery of what really happened to Jacob's unit in Vietnam.
Inspired in part by Ambrose Bierce's American classic "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge", the film comments on the horrors of war and the manipulation of the people by the government. On a more metaphysical level, the movie draws from Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State, also known in the West as The Tibetan Book of the Dead. In Buddhism, the intermediate state, or bardo, refers to the transitional period between death and rebirth when one's consciousness reigns free of its physical limitations and experiences phenomena that may resemble reality but may also drift into unfettered and horrible hallucinations. For those prepared for death and rebirth, the intermediate state can offer a chance for great liberation.
If you've seen the movie and understood its twist ending, you can see just how influential this particular aspect of Buddhist mysticism played on Rubin's development of the film's plot and resolution. I especially loved the references to the Eckhart quote and how it suddenly becomes clear the role various characters and actions—Jezzie and when she burns the old pictures of Jacob's family, Paul (Pruitt Taylor Vince) and his exploding car, Gabe especially in the final scene—play in representing this idea of purgatory. It leaves you wondering what's worse: visions of hell after death or the hell that is our reality while we're alive? Is the truth more terrible than the knowledge that can set you free from this intermediate state? Is there hope in hell? What about in life? And will you be ready to go when your time comes? It may be complicated and it may not be for everyone, but it's a poignant question and makes this film worth rewatching time and again.
Final critique: This movie is frankly terrifying, and it becomes even more dark the more you think about it. The demons are disturbing in such a pure and imaginative way that you start to feel unsettled in the first few minutes of the movie and stay that way pretty much the entire time. Coupled with gruesome flashbacks to Vietnam and a truth that's even more horrifying than what Jacob could have imagined, Jacob's Ladder will scare you silly and leave you questioning what's real and what isn't.
Keep an eye out for an updated remake of the film set to release this year! That makes the timing even better to check out the original if you haven't seen it already. I'm interested to see how a modern reimagining of the film, drawing from ongoing wars in the Middle East and dealing with themes of PTSD, changes or honors the story. Life is but a dream...