#289 Jacob’s Ladder

(1990, Adrian Lyne)

“The only part of you that burns in Hell is the part of you that can’t let go of life”

I am a big fan of the Silent Hill video game series, at least in terms of its earlier entries, and one major inspiration that the developers have cited over the years was a little independent American thriller movie from the early 90s called Jacob’s Ladder. So imagine my joy when it turned up on the 1001 Movies list. But how good is this psychological thriller and is its cult success justified?

Jacob’s Ladder is set in the late seventies, where Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) is a Vietnam veteran now working as a postman in New York with his girlfriend Jezebel (Elizabeth Pena). During the war, he experienced an episode where members of his division started experiencing abnormal behaviour, and in his present life, he seems to suffer severe hallucinations, and begins to get increasingly paranoid that demons are coming to kill him. He sets out to discover the truth for himself, and stop the nightmarish hallucinations once and for all.

Jacob’s Ladder is a difficult movie to talk about because it’s such a bizarre film in so many ways. It largely defies a lot of conventional film-making wisdom and sits in a strange limbo between thriller, drama and horror. Its story is riddled with non-sequitur scenes and it constantly blurs the line between fantasy and reality.

So, you can imagine that I absolutely loved it. I love movies that do psychological weirdness well, and Jacob’s Ladder definitely does it well. This is a movie that does everything it can to keep you confused and tense and leave you wondering exactly what the hell is going on, and determined to make you keep watching to find out the truth.

It does this first of all by making sure that every single one of Jacob’s hallucinations is incredibly effective. We catch glimpses of things without faces, of deformed monsters with no discernible form, of people whose heads shake violently in a way no head should ever shake. Everything is immensely unnerving. It gets even worse with a disturbing demonic tentacle “rape” scene and a scene set in a blood-and-dirt-smeared hospital filled with disturbed and deformed residents that clearly had Keiichiro Toyama taking notes.

Another way things work is that generally the plot holds up extremely well despite all the strange goings-on. Even when suddenly we end up in the past in random flashbacks, it’s disorientating but not so much that the viewer can’t piece things together.

It’s also easy to connect with Jacob as a character. Tim Robbins puts in a brilliant performance, making him a sympathetic character and not just a simple vehicle to chuck shaky-headed monsters at the audience. We’re rooting for the guy the whole time and want him to find answers and possibly some retribution at those who potentially caused him to have these hallucinations.

Not that the plot is perfect, mind. In its efforts to be vague and creepy at every turn, Jacob’s Ladder sometimes suffers from introducing certain elements and then absolutely failing to explain them. The two notable horror scenes I mentioned above were effective but never adequately explained. When Jacob’s chiropractor turns up and takes him out of a normal hospital, this fails to answer anything. But then again, the answers may very well be in there and this is the kind of movie that requires multiple viewings to understand fully. But it got me willing to watch it again to unravel its mysteries, so that can only be a good thing.

The ending, I will admit, was a little too predictable for my liking. It certainly worked and was a very interesting way of wrapping up the story, but I saw it coming a little too early, and that kind of ruined things a little.

That said, I loved Jacob’s Ladder. It was a tense, spooky little movie that left a huge impression and will be leaving me wondering what it all meant for quite some time, I imagine.

Starring Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Pena, Danny Aiello & Matt Craven
Written by Bruce Joel Rubin
Produced by Mario Kassar, Alan Marshall, Bruce Joel Rubin & Andrew G. Vajna
Music by Maurice Jarre
Cinematography by Jeffrey L. Kimball
Edited by Tom Rolf

Favourite Scene: That hospital scene. If anything’s going to keep you up all night after watching this, it’s that scene.
Scene That Bugged Me: Jacob being saved by his chiropractor, of all people, was a little out of left-field. Yes, even for this movie with the head-shaky monsters.

Watch it if: You’re a fan of Silent Hill or psychological horror in general
Avoid it if: You don’t like thinly-veiled religious imagery

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Posted on June 5, 2014, in 1990s, Horror, Thriller and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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