Great Films You Need To See – Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally-recognised magazine and website that offers an intelligent take on cinema, focussing on how film affects our lives. This piece about Adrian Lyne’s psychological horror Jacob’s Ladder was written as part of The Big Picture’s Lost Classics strand, although I am including it within my list of Great Films You Need To See.

Psychological horror has long been the neglected offspring of a genre that too often falls back on lazy shocks, recycled storylines and dismembered body parts.

While its unfortunate protagonist is unable to separate reality from demonic hallucination, the unique and relentlessly creepy Jacob's Ladder can be viewed through a prism of nightmarish perceptions, all as valid as each other

While its unfortunate protagonist is unable to separate reality from demonic hallucination, the unique and relentlessly creepy Jacob’s Ladder can be viewed through a prism of nightmarish perceptions, all as valid as each other

Yet, it’s through this underused sub-genre that some of horror’s finest hours have emerged, not least of which the largely forgotten Jacob’s Ladder.

Jacob (Tim Robbins) fights for his life in Jacob's Ladder

Jacob (Tim Robbins) fights for his life in Jacob’s Ladder

Directed by Adrian Lyne, Jacob’s Ladder may seem like an odd fit in a filmography dominated by such libidinous titles as 9½ Weeks and Indecent Proposal, but makes more sense when you consider it followed his 1987 smash Fatal Attraction, a psychological horror in all but name that scared the shit out of men and riled feminists the world over.

Vietnam vet Jacob Singer’s (Tim Robbins) nightmares/flashbacks of a horrific incident during the war begin to bleed into his waking life when he experiences demonic visions that grow ever more disturbing and threatening. Jacob’s slippery grasp on reality is further corroded by his unwitting involvement in what appears to be a deadly military conspiracy seeking to silence him.

Just one of the nightmarish images in Jacob's Ladder

Just one of the nightmarish images in Jacob’s Ladder

Much like his tortured protagonist, Lyne never lets the viewer settle for more than a few minutes before taking a further step down the ladder towards hell. Best known at the time for supporting turns in Bull Durham and Cadillac Man (not forgetting Howard the Duck and Erik the Viking), Robbins brings a tragic innocence to the tortured Jacob, a psychologically scarred war vet who’s as terrified as he is confused by what he’s being forced to endure.

Jacob's (Tim Robbins) life falls apart in Jacob's Ladder

Jacob’s (Tim Robbins) life falls apart in Jacob’s Ladder

What makes Jacob’s visions more frightening is the plausibility in which Lyne presents them. One woman appears to have filed-down horns which only become apparent when her hat slips, while a car trying to run him down contains the violently shaking masked figure he glimpsed earlier at the back of a subway train. Cronenbergian body horror is also used to phantasmagorical effect at a party where Jacob’s girlfriend Jezebel (Elizabeth Peña) is seemingly violated by a grotesque demon; and the unnerving hospital scene when an incapacitated Jacob is confronted by doctors who really don’t seem to have his best interests at heart.

The angelic chiropractor Louis (Danny Aiello) in Jacob's Ladder

The angelic chiropractor Louis (Danny Aiello) in Jacob’s Ladder

The film features a number of startling images, including a helicopter shot Oliver Stone would have been proud of and the haunting moment when a coin’s sudden movement spells doom for one character. Lyne’s inspirations for the film’s visual palette include the Oscar-winning 1962 short film An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and the austere work of artist Francis Bacon (in particular the film’s poster which shows a ghostly Jacob seemingly trapped in an abyss).

Jacob's (Tim Robbins) war buddy Paul (Pruitt Taylor Vince) confides in Jacob's Ladder

Jacob’s (Tim Robbins) war buddy Paul (Pruitt Taylor Vince) confides in Jacob’s Ladder

Despite toning down Bruce Joel Rubin’s portentous script, the film is still cut through with Old Testament religious symbolism, from the title that refers to a chapter in Genesis in which the prophet Jacob dreams of a ladder ascending to heaven, to the overtly Biblical names (Jacob, Jezebel, his ex-wife Sarah, who in the Bible was Jacob’s grandmother, and son Gabe/Gabriel) and the angelic quality of Jacob’s chiropractor Louis (Danny Aiello).

A nasty spot for Jacob (Tim Robbins) in Jacob's Ladder

A nasty spot for Jacob (Tim Robbins) in Jacob’s Ladder

Louis’ citation to Jacob of Christian philosopher Meister Eckhart about devils really being angels freeing a soul that isn’t ready to let go not only strikes at the heart of Jacob’s tortured psyche, but is also a breadcrumb left by Lyne that provides one explanation of the film’s wider context.

While its unfortunate protagonist is unable to separate reality from demonic hallucination, the unique and relentlessly creepy Jacob’s Ladder can be viewed through a prism of nightmarish perceptions, all as valid as each other.

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15 comments

  1. Mark Walker · September 18, 2013

    Great review Mark. I absolutely loved this movie. It’s one of the best of its kind and shamefully never gets the recognition it deserves.

    • Three Rows Back · September 18, 2013

      You’re absolutely correct Mark. It’s a real shame it hasn’t been more widely seen as it thoroughly deserves it. Thanks for the kind words 🙂

  2. Terry Malloy's Pigeon Coop · September 18, 2013

    Superb piece Mark. Not a film I’m familiar with but looks absolutely mental from the images!

    • Three Rows Back · September 18, 2013

      Cheers Chris. Check it out; it’s genuinely unsettling and Robbins gives an affecting performance.

  3. mikeyb @ screenkicker · September 18, 2013

    Its still really fucking creepy! Scared the crap out of me as a kid

    • Three Rows Back · September 19, 2013

      It’s still pretty freaky. Watched it again for this review and it’s still great too.

  4. vinnieh · September 23, 2013

    Excellent post, that hospital scene used to always freak me out. Tim Robbins is so good in this.

    • Three Rows Back · September 23, 2013

      Cheers buddy. It still stands up now as genuinely unsettling.

      • vinnieh · September 23, 2013

        It still does, that part when the person’s head is almost spinning out of control is really haunting.

  5. Popcorn Nights · October 9, 2013

    Nice review. I love this film and agree that it’s really underrated…never seems to get many props. I remember it scaring the sh1t out of me when I first watched it!

  6. Victor De Leon · June 26, 2014

    This movie affected me so deeply that I went out and bought the screenplay by Rubin (which I still own). I have loved it ever since. It is a brilliant piece of art and a stunning example of metaphor, allegory and religious symbolism. But it also is a naturally heartfelt and emotional film that deeply resonates. It is so under-rated and overlooked. Glad you mentioned Bacon and Owl Creek too! Very astute observations. Nice work here!

    • Three Rows Back · June 26, 2014

      Thanks as always Vic. Buying the screenplay, man, that’s admirable work! Well said there; I’m chuffed you value this as much as I do. It’s a long held classic in my mind.

  7. crashpalace (@crashpalace) · June 26, 2014

    An amazing, in-depth and completely disturbing ride. Plus, it messes with one’s head in every way possible. Wonderful review!

    • Three Rows Back · June 26, 2014

      Cheers buddy. It’s been almost a quarter of a decade but it still freaks me out. It’s a true classic.

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