Struggling to come to terms in the wake of his child’s death, a veteran of the Vietnam war finds himself in the middle of a series of inexplicable events. Plagued by chronic injuries sustained in the war, Jacob Singer begins to confuse reality with dreams and nightmares. He hallucinates. He can’t sleep. His health, what’s left of it, begins to decline. Soon, he wonders whether the events that transpired during his final days in the service have contributed to a fate from which he cannot escape.
Jacob’s Ladder is the 1990 psychological horror directed by Adrian Lyne starring Tim Robbins as Jacob Singer, Elizabeth Peña as Jezzie, Danny Aiello as Louis (the chiropractor), Matt Craven as Michael and Macaulay Culkin as Gabe Singer.
There are a lot of things about this film that even now, after more than 20 years, serve up some seriously twisted moments of extreme unease. Moments when Jake is confronted by the faceless remain true despite their practical sfx basis. The too-fast-shaking head of a party goer was visually arresting for 1990 and – since similar effects can be seen in countless contemporary films, video games, and the odd porno – you may be surprised to know that director Adrian Lyne was the first to employ it.
If you want to know — the effect was achieved by the actor shaking his head at four frames per second. When played back at the average 24 frames per second, the shaking produced a staggeringly unnerving effect – emulated repeatedly since, but never equaled.
I’ve always been drawn to films that blur the lines of reality. While there are two terrific scenes in Jacob’s Ladder that convey a supremely surreal atmosphere (the orgiastic party and hospital gurney sequences), the film is as much about confronting mortality as it is about psychological decay. Both subjects, on their own, are enough to hang entire horror films on. The combination of the two, weaved masterfully in the film, is powerful, casting a spell on its audience, catapulting us into that gray place hanging between reality and the unseen.
Adrian Lyne, who has since become more or less disinterested in the horror genre (sadly), does a genius job of giving us enough. We’re thrown a look at the demons that beset Jacob and his old platoon – enough to make us confused, anxious, curious, and increasingly terrified of what’s to come. Sometimes, the demons appear for less than a second of screen time. Less than a second. With this tactic, Lyne proves that sometimes, especially in horror, it’s the purposeful gaps that do the most to scare us.
Tim Robbins – love him or hate him – is perfect as Jacob. In fact, there are many faces you may be glad to see among the cast – Ving Rhames, Jason Alexander (who would also appear in Pretty Woman the same year), Danny Aiello, and Mac Culkin (uncredited!) as Jacob’s son Gabe. Watching it now, after so many years, I look at Tim Robbins – even as he is being more or less tortured on that gurney – and find myself thankful it is he, and not Tom Hanks, that was cast. Tom Hanks, a front runner for the role, was still several years away from the two performances that would shape his career (Forest Gump, Philadelphia). Up until this point, Hanks had focused primarily on comedies (barring Punchline, which was more or less panned by everyone) and the role of Jacob Singer may have seemed (forgive me) a stretch.
Maurice Jarre’s score is haunting, sparse, understated where it needs to be and arresting when it matters. Jarre’s music – heard in iconic films like Lawrence of Arabia, The Year of Living Dangerously, and Dead Poets Society – is sensitive, uplifting, and evocative. It creates and supports the atmosphere carefully crafted in Jacob’s Ladder.
The film isn’t for everyone – it picks at a lot of scabs. I’ve always felt that some level of discomfort is a necessary basis of evolution be that physical, emotional, or mental. Jacob’s Ladder will have you feeling something even if it is just that – discomfort. It’s worth a watch and know that LD Entertainment is planning a remake (even if it is loosely based).