1990’s Jacob’s Ladder, directed by Adrian Lyne, is a film I feel is very often overlooked when it comes to horror. Sitting somewhere in a generic nexus of thriller, psychological horror and war film, it is a story of madness, grief and confusion. When brought up in conversation, many horror fans will say something along the lines of ‘oh yes, I love that movie.’ And yet it never seems to make the lists of ‘best psychological horror films’, or ‘films that stay with you the longest’. I want to take a brief look at the film and explain why I think that Jacob’s Ladder is a masterpiece of horror cinema that you simply have to see.
Starring Tim Robbins and Christina Pena, the film follows Jacob Singer, a Vietnam veteran turned postman struggling with flashbacks of both the war and the loss of his young son, Gabe (in a cameo played by Macaulay Culkin). His daily life is being invaded by visions of demons and people with distortions of flesh, which he suspects has something to do with a possible governmental conspiracy that becomes intertwined when his Vietnam buddies begin to die off one by one. All the actors are truly great in their roles, and Robbins’ performance rivals that of what he delivered The Shawshank Redemption. He has the heart and joy of the character, and has the ability to shift terror into anguish with extreme skill.
Jacob’s Ladder is overwhelmed with emotion; guilt, grief and mourning are dripping from every single frame. It’s dark and gloomy, and the city feels like a progenitor for Se7en. Even the scenes during the day are rarely, if ever, set on a glorious blue-sky day. The tone and the atmosphere creeps into every pore in your body until you find yourself coming away from watching it with the feeling of the grime, the dirt and the dark still clinging to you, trailing at your heels like tongues of mist.
Into this oppressive atmosphere enters Jacob’s nightmare, the strange visions and beings following him wherever he goes. Adrian Lyne’s genius here is to make everything blurred and distorted, where you’re never quite sure exactly what you’re seeing. The times you do see something in close up are limited and fleeting, much like the Xenomorph in Alien, and they perhaps don’t shock, or even disgust, so much as unsettle. A glimpse of strange, stubby horns, or of large bat wings, fleshy and pulsing, writhing around under the strobe-lighting of a dance-floor, are seen in quick, fleeting glimpses. It all has a hallucinatory quality that takes the monsters themselves beyond the realm of ordinary horror and into something more surreal. It’s not typical horror, not the big slasher villain, but it’s somehow more horrifying and disturbing for it.
Perhaps the most famous scene in the film (the hospital gurney scene) is one of the most uniquely memorable in cinema due to its very singular nature; there is nothing else quite like it. The genius of the spinning back wheel has been used in numerous films since (I’ve personally noticed it in the 2002 remake for The Ring, and in The Eye), and the strange doctor at the end of the corridor was one of the main inspirations for the bandaged nurses of Silent Hill (2006). The entire sequence was also the direct inspiration for the music video for the song “Nightmare” by Avenged Sevenfold.
Lyne’s constant inspiration of the effects of thalidomide when creating the strange figures of the scene – as discussed in the documentary Building Jacob’s Ladder – only goes a small way to describing the horrific twists of limbs in the visions Jacob sees. Strapped down, taken from the light of the hospital into the dungeons of the hellish underworld, past Gabe’s bike, wheel twirling endlessly into infinity, and eventually beginning to be experimented on in the darkness, told he is dead, unable to move, this scene is one of the most strange, ethereal depictions of a Dantean descent into hell ever depicted in cinema, and an absolute delight to watch every time.
The oppression in the film isn’t due to a singular monster, but the scenario Jacob finds himself in. The film doesn’t have a main villain, and that’s perhaps why it’s overlooked. With horror’s obsession of the recognisable figures of Michael, Freddy, Ghostface, Billy, even the Xenomorph, Predator and so on, it’s not a film you can make into a Halloween costume very easily. In fact, it’s not a conventional film in any way. It has a strange, chopped up narrative structure and its generic influences not allowing it to sit definitively in any one genre, horror included. It’s not known because it has great kills or great action sequences. It breaks out of any mould it could be put into, instead being its own unique experience.
Jacob’s Ladder is a film that takes the themes and iconography of horror and moves into something deeper and more meaningful than just a disturbing popcorn flick. It’s a film that looks deeply at death, the afterlife and moving on; on coming to terms with the impossible. It isn’t going to sell masks and it isn’t the movie you automatically take a girl to if you want them wrapped around your arm. It is Jacob Ladder’s emotional resonance, a feeling you emerge with after viewing it, that is the most incredible thing about the film. It’s a film that every fan of cinema needs to see.
Written by Kieran Judge
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