Something that we haven’t done a very good job with and I’d like to correct is the lack of holiday-themed articles here on Grump Factory. I attempted to make a horror-themed article for Halloween last year, but it ended up being posted quite late. That simply will not DO. So here I am, presenting a movie that deserves to have its place among modern horror staples: Jacob’s Ladder. So strap yourself to a gurney and come along with me!
Jacob Singer is a war vet who’s in a deep funk. He has his doctorate, but slums it working as a mailman at the postal office. He’s divorced his wife and mother to his two children. And the haunting memories of what he endured in Vietnam are disturbing him more and more. Jacob starts seeing monsters in his everyday life, flashes of demons that no one else can see. After he makes contact with a former friend from the war, he finds out that he doesn’t seem to be the only one seeing these horrific visions, and that the military might be responsible. From there the movie launches into a harrowing depiction of a man slowly losing his mind as reality and disturbing nightmare begin to intertwine.
The first thing I have to say about Jacob’s Ladder is that I love the atmosphere. It’s just about perfect. Umf. The subway scene at the beginning is just a fantastic example of this. The film of filth that everything has on it, from the dingy subway car to the rats scurrying around in the puddles of water on the tunnel floor, even the hanging lights dimly illuminating the dank surroundings… it creates the PERFECT backdrop to set the mood for this movie. It’s a world that’s at once modern and familiar… but corrupted one step further to create a dark, dessicated version of the urban landscape. The movie’s full of these sorts of dilapidated, abandoned backdrops.
And then there’s the “monsters” or “demons” in the film. I love that the movie never tries to take its horror too far and have little goblins running around. The scares in this movie are much closer to what a Cronenberg movie or Possession is like: a nauseating glimpse of gore and perversion. One of the most intense examples of this is when Jacob sees his girlfriend being sexually ravaged by a… bird-lizard-monster-thing on the dance floor at a party. We only catch the barest glimpses of the creature: a wing here, a tail there. The strobe light doesn’t let us look at the effects long enough to see just how cheap it probably was, but suggests a huge, terrifying demon. And then there’s the hospital scene later on, which is where this movie had my jaw dropping with its powerful imagery.
The team that created Silent Hill said that Jacob’s Ladder (and also Suspiria, but that’s for another time) was a huge influence on the first game’s atmosphere and story. And it’s completely obvious where they ripped this off. First of all is the hospital symbolism that runs rampant throughout. Would it even BE there if the producers hadn’t had been creeped out by the hospital scene in this movie? And the corrupted urban landscape of Jacob’s Ladder is practically the hallmark of Silent Hill. If Resident Evil is the Night of the Living Dead of the survival horror genre, then Silent Hill is definitely the Jacob’s Ladder.
The cast deserves some mention, too. I’ve never been an enormous Tim Robbins fan, although he has done some memorable stuff as of late, specifically in the movie Mystic River. In fact, that seems to be a prime example of the kind of stuff I think Tim Robbins does best: haunted, obsessed men with a tragic past. Jacob Singer is exactly that and Tim Robbins drums up some pretty awesome emotions. I was totally on his side throughout the movie, which isn’t an easy task when your protagonist might be an unstable lunatic. Elizabeth Peña plays his girlfriend and, like all exotic young women in late 80s/early 90s thrillers, her top comes off within the first minute of her appearance.
There’s some truly strange casting in Jacob’s Ladder, too. Who would’ve expected Macaulay Culkin, Lewis Black and Jason Alexander in the same movie? But oddest of all is Danny Aiello, a man born to play menacing mob roles, cast as a chiropractor, a beacon of light and purity in Jacob’s dark world.
But Jacob’s Ladder isn’t perfect. I’ve been de-emphasizing the Vietnam aspect, but it’s a pretty crucial part of the movie. The main narrative is framed by flashbacks to Jacob’s time in Vietnam. It weaves in and out of the story, making the confusion of what’s real and what’s an illusion even greater up until the end. Oh boy, that end. You see, the movie keeps you guessing up until the end on what is actually going on. Is it a government conspiracy? Is there a war being waged between heaven and hell for Jacob’s soul? Or is he just completely barking mad? The movie’s content to tease all three of these possibilities up until the end where it sort of clumsily settles upon an answer for all the craziness that’s gone on and… it’s fairly disappointing. It’s like they played Wheel of Fortune with the storylines and ended up on that. I’m not saying it doesn’t fit the movie and its symbolism… it’s just that it’s not what I wanted from it. It especially doesn’t help that I don’t really like war movies, so having this awesome psychological horror story interrupted by that crap every so often hurts it, in my opinion.
But still, this movie should be a part of any horror buff’s repetoire. It’s visually and intellectually interesting in a way few horror movies try to be. It’s not populated by big-chested cheerleaders getting chainsawed, so if you’re more partial to modern horror schlock (e.g. Saw, Hostel, Wrong Turn, etc., etc.), this might be too subdued and intellectual for your liking. And that makes steam come out of my ears. But if you want to see a more cerebral stab at horror (and ESPECIALLY if you’re a fan of Silent Hill… the game, that is) you owe it to yourself to check this one out.