Jacob's Ladder
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Credit: TriStar Pictures

How Jacob's Ladder, a trippy post-Vietnam tale, inspired a generation of horror

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Nov 2, 2020, 5:14 PM EST (Updated)

“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.” Turns out that scriptwriter Bruce Joel Rubin wasn’t actually being too hyperbolic about Jacob’s Ladder, the metaphysical post-Vietnam horror that must surely rank as the most disorientating U.S. No. 1 in box office history. No doubt many cinemagoers stumbled out of its screenings back in November 1990 as if they’d experienced a bad trip themselves.

It was certainly a far cry from Rubin's much bigger afterlife hit earlier that same year. Whereas the Patrick Swayze-led Ghost counterbalanced its existential themes with sassy comic relief and pottery-based foreplay, Jacob’s Ladder never relents in its quest to confound, confuse, and challenge our perceptions of reality. Legendary critic Roger Ebert once described it as a “thoroughly painful and depressing experience” that left him reeling “with sadness and despair.” You can perhaps understand why before Carolco Pictures took a punt, the film spent most of the 1980s stuck in development hell.

Adrian Lyne’s unlikely follow-up to Fatal Attraction stars Tim Robbins — then largely renowned for his comic output — as the titular postal office worker haunted by both the death of his young son (played by an uncredited Macaulay Culkin) and the horrifying end to his stint in the Vietnam War. It was inspired by a nightmare Rubin had about being stuck on a subway, which undoubtedly explains why there’s a fever dream quality throughout.

The action continually switches from the present to the past, from reality to fantasy, and from the humdrum of everyday life to terrifying hallucinations. Loving one minute, downright callous the next, Jacob’s girlfriend Jezzie (Elizabeth Peña) appears to change personality at the drop of a hat. And you’re never quite sure whether the trauma that unfolds is a dream, a form of PTSD, occurring in a parallel universe or, most frighteningly of all, genuinely happening.

Eventually, we discover that everything shown in the wake of Jacob’s "return" from war — the car explosions, the life-saving ice baths, Jezzie being impaled by a giant winged demon while grinding on the dancefloor — has been a figment of his dying imagination. Yes, Robbins’ vulnerable everyman had spent the previous 110 minutes in a form of purgatory having been fatally stabbed during that blood-curdling, limb-ripping opening combat scene, and by one of his comrades, too.  

It’s a twist that may seem obvious 30 years on but at the time it dropped audiences’ jaws. Jacob’s Ladder didn’t invent the whole "he’s been dead all along" trope, of course: see the 1962 cult classic Carnival of Souls for a much earlier example, or look back to the short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” which was published a full century before Jacob’s Ladder premiered. However, with a budget of $25 million and a leading man who’d graced Howard the Duck, the film was then the most mainstream picture to adopt it. No doubt that a young M. Night Shyamalan was taking notes.

But Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense wasn’t the only chiller to follow in Jacob’s Ladder’s footsteps. In 2005, Adrien Brody attempted to capitalize on his Oscar glory playing a troubled Gulf War vet recovering from a near-death experience in John Maybury’s The Jacket, another surrealist tale unafraid to play around with logic and narrative conventions. In fact, the mid-'00s was something of a boom period for mind-bending thrillers that blatantly took their cue from Lyne’s cult classic — some good (The Machinist), some not so good (The I Inside, Stay), and some an unadulterated mess (Room 6, Trauma).

Director Darren Aronofsky also seemed proud of star Alec Baldwin’s summation that 2010’s Black Swan was essentially “Jacob’s Ladder in tutus.” Here, Natalie Portman’s devoted dancer loses her grip on reality on the battlefield that is the New York ballet scene. It might not have a rotting cow’s head in a fridge, but, with its claustrophobic filming style and demonic visions, it's an apt comparison. The nightclub sequence where Nina fully embraces her darker side is highly reminiscent of Jacob’s mid-party meltdown, in particular. 

Then there’s the demonic head shake — remarkably not a post-production effect but a pioneering in-camera technique created by playing back a low frame rate at normal speed — which has been imitated in everything from late '90s Hollywood hit House on Haunted Hill to Austrian arthouse favorite Goodnight Mommy.

You could even argue that the mind games in Tarsem Singh’s visually stunning head-scratchers (The Cell, The Fall), David Fincher’s Fight Club and The Game, and pretty much the entire oeuvre of Christopher Nolan owe a debt to those deployed so effectively in Jacob’s Ladder.

Unfortunately, no one of such caliber was inspired to take the director’s chair for the remake that limped onto VOD in 2019. With its predominantly African American cast, present-day setting, and additional involvement of Jacob’s brother, David M. Rosenthal’s take at least tries to do something different. Yet it botches the phantasmagorical elements that made the original such a visceral, unnerving watch.

Had longtime fans such as Creep’s Patrick Brice (who once joked that he’d tattooed Danny Aiello’s profound speech onto his right breast) or Daniel Isn’t Reals Adam Egypt Mortimer (who told Bloody Disgusting that “no movie better portrays the feeling of trauma”) taken the reins, then a redux would perhaps have retained the vital sense of existential dread.

The Silent Hill franchise has never been lacking on that front, however. Indeed, the most effective Jacob’s Ladder homage hasn’t emerged from Tinseltown but the world of third-person horror video games. Creator Keiiichiro Toyama drew heavily from the film in the 1999 first installment, building an atmospheric blurred reality where paranoia and creeping fear replaced the more traditional scare jumps: in the "Bad" ending, the story is revealed to be hero Harry’s dying hallucination from the wreckage of a car crash.

Those jerky head movements also show up throughout the series. And James’ hellish gurney ride through the hospital in Silent Hill 2 is a blatant nod to that experienced by Jacob in the film’s most horrific scene. Wisely, its makers have never tried to hide how much Lyne’s meditation on death has been an inspiration.

Of course, Jacob’s Ladder borrowed plenty itself, from the artwork of Francis Bacon and teachings of the Tibetan Book of the Dead to the shocking finale of The Twilight Zone’s 1962 adaptation of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” However, it manages to tie all its diverse influences into something truly distinctive: A chart-topping horror that doesn’t remotely pander to the popcorn crowd.

It’s a puzzle of a movie that perfectly fits all the pieces together yet still leaves enough room open for interpretation. It tackles some of the weightiest themes imaginable without ever dumbing down. And it’s not afraid to finish on one of the bleakest notes in '90s cinema. Few films had previously dared descend into such darkness but thanks to a screenwriter’s nighttime imagination, plenty have since.

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