[31 Days of Horror: Resurrection] Day 23 – Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

Director: Adrian Lyne
Cast: Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Pena, Danny Aiello, Matt Craven
Screenplay: Bruce Joel Rubin
113 mins. Rated R.

I think I actively avoided Jacob’s Ladder for a number of years. My reasoning isn’t quite sound: I had a feeling it wasn’t really horror, and I had this general idea that I knew where the film was headed, and it carried a legendary status among non-horror fans as a horror classic, which made me question its validity within the genre. As stated, this is not sound reasoning, but it’s the reasoning I had. Eventually, at the behest of my Kyle & Nick on Film co-host, Nick, I finally got around to seeing Jacob’s Ladder.

Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins, The Shawshank Redemption, Top Gun) is a Vietnam vet who’s been trying to get back to a normal life. He’s in a passionate relationship with a co-worker, Jezebel (Elizabeth Pena, The Incredibles, Rush Hour), and he’s got a doctor helping him fix his back and spine from his military time. On the outside, life seems to be returning a semblance of normality, except that Jacob is seeing things that aren’t there, or are they? Now, Jacob can’t discern what’s real and what’s a dream, does it matter, and what’s happening to him?

Jacob’s Ladder is a film of patience. It doesn’t really answer any questions until the final few minutes. There are layers to the story that peel back, and you get some clarity on the narrative, but every time I felt like I was starting to understand, the narrative added a new kernel of information that changed my perception on the story. The screenplay, by Bruce Joel Rubin (Ghost, Deep Impact) was a much longer and more overwhelming story, but director Adrian Lyne (Deep Water, Lolita) took the narrative and ran with it, creating a more confusing but never frustrating watch. I was willing to trust the film and the filmmaker on good faith that the conclusion would be satisfying, and that trust was paid off in full. It seems like the kind of narrative that had a number of interesting potential conclusions, so each time Rubin’s script disregards one satisfying reveal to twist the knife further, it’s a risk, and yet when it reached the ending, it made for a movie I wanted to immediately rewatch and discuss with someone.

Tim Robbins is able to tackle this interesting cold-to-warm presence in many of his roles, and he would become more notable for this in The Shawshank Redemption. He can appear to be so cold, weightless, blown in by the wind when alone, and yet he can have a vibrancy in scenes with Jacob’s friends and family. It’s that ability to shift his character tone to match the scene and still remain convincing as Jacob that makes him one of the more powerful presences on film up to today.

My favorite shared scenes in the film come from Jacob’s interactions with his doctor, Louis (Danny Aiello, The Godfather Part II, Leon: The Professional). There’s a fatherly, guiding way that Aiello plays Louis, a teacher of mentor to Jacob in his time of need, Aiello’s portrayal comes off as more than a physical doctor, but a metaphysical, psychological, and emotional presence trying to give Jacob all the support he can. Side note: Lyne partnered with real chiropractors to ensure authenticity in these sequences, which is commendable and always appreciated.


Lyne made some changes to the finite rules of Rubin’s script, mainly in how he portrays the various horrors presented to Jacob. Rubin’s script has literal demons showing up, complete with horns, hooves, and wings. Lyne decided to make the creature effects more diverse and unique, and he uses in-camera trickery to unnerve both Jacob and the audience. The decision was made to accomplish all of these effects during production, a smart move considering that most early-90s CGI tends to age rather poorly. Some of the effects, including the use of low frame rate to create the unsettling shaky vision, are still being used in films today. It’s also notable that Lyne ensured that Jacob and the various visions never appeared in the same shot so that there’s a distinguish between the very-real Jacob Singer and the potentially unreal visions.

Back to the literal take in Rubin’s screenplay, Lyne’s choice to use elements from Jacob’s life in the finale made for a horror film that has a surprising amount of hope, and both times I’ve watched the film, this finale brought me to tears. The uncredited (and very young) Macauley Culkin as Jacob’s dead son coming to console him and guide him up to the next place is absolutely shattering. Lyne’s choice of using the staircase as a ladder after the odyssey takes him away from his family and brings him to the sexual, carnal Jezebel only to welcome him back home brings Jacob full-circle to what really mattered to him throughout his life, his home, his family. I usually hate endings where the entire movie is a dream, and I kept assuming that was a distinct possibility, but this time around, it was very effective for me. I think that’s because Lyne’s execution doesn’t undermine the journey he’s been on. While his body didn’t physically go on this journey, but to his brain and soul, this all really happened on his journey up the ladder.

It’s easy to see the influence of Jacob’s Ladder on modern horror, even as far as being a inspiration for the Silent Hill video game series. While there are a few story logic problems I have with narrative (nitpicks for the most part) and I’d have rather gotten a clearer look at some of the practical effects, Adrian Lyne’s horror show is well worth checking it, and then thinking on it for a bit, and then watching it all over again. Jacob’s Ladder comes highly-recommended.

-Kyle A. Goethe

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