The Best Horror of the 90s: Jacob’s Ladder

Jacob’s Ladder is not perfect, but we do find the trace of perfection. The gem of terror is there.

Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) is hospitalized – he threw his back out. He’s been having a series of nightmarish visions, from flashbacks of Vietnam to the sight of demons humping his girlfriend. The hospital is a respite to normalcy. Wife and child come to soothe him. But just when that comfort is close, a voice says: “Dream on.” The voice is new, unexplained. We don’t get jump-cuts or monsters breaking through walls. Just a voice, saying there is no hope. That’s the darkest moment in this darkest of films.

Visual integrity and strength of premise save the film. And the premise is simple: Jacob’s not doing well. Nightmares of Vietnam haunt him, he’s living with a woman who isn’t good for him, and he misses his family (but doesn’t know how to reach them). Visions start. Ghost trains at deserted stations, people with tumorous nodules and tentacles – that sort of thing. He’s sinking deeper and deeper into hell.

Like Angel Heart (a better, similar journey into personal disintegration), Jacob’s Ladder succeeds on brutal and disturbing imagery. There are many subtle “not right” images (mental patients on the ceiling, half-humans all around), and the blighted atmosphere of the city is a hell. The film creates a mental space that is undeniably unpleasant.

One of the reasons the film works is Tim Robbins. Not my favorite actor, this is one of his few roles that doesn’t project a smug superciliousness (a personal defect that propelled The Shawshank Redemption). He is disarmingly vulnerable. Confusion and hurt, contrasted with moments of stability, are real enough to build empathy. Even when he’s foul (like when he shoves the lithesome Elizabeth Pena, his Jezebel), it comes from an understandable place.

Less (or too) understandable is the film’s middle act, which devolves into government conspiracy, drug testing, and super-soldier bullshit. Maybe the screenwriter, Bruce Joel Rubin, worried that his story was too weird – that it lacked clarity. Maybe the director, Adrian Lyne, couldn’t grasp the material without finding an anchor in the supposedly down-to-earth.

Conspiracy does anchor the film, grounding it to where all the imagery’s explained. Apparently, Jacob and his war buddies were subject to drug testing that made them kill each other. OK, fair enough. But this leads to some bad scenes, like cars trying to run Jacob over, and Jacob being kidnapped by government toughs. Such mediocrity is shorn by this very scene: Once Jacob escapes from the toughs (who are never seen again), he lands on the street, throwing his back out. A Salvation Army Santa steals his wallet. This is eerie, a vital part of the film. The conspiracy crap is very much apart, and it could have run the whole ship aground.1

But there’s enough invention here to maintain buoyancy. The doctor with flesh-covered eyes, the hellish ride through the hospital, the invigorating presence of Danny Aiello as Jacob’s chiropractor angel: Jacob’s Ladder is unique. When it stumbles upon formula, the film is close to losing it. And so is Jacob, so the film engages formally in what is happening on a narrative level.

Nah, it screws up. But that doesn’t keep it from being at least kind of great.

1Watching the deleted stuff proves it could have been worse. Jacob meets the chemist who made the drugs. Claiming he’s got a cure, the chemist takes Jacob to an apartment where he gives Jacob a drug that is administered orally. Jacob lays down. Immediately, he’s assaulted by the worst of his visions – and some of these are truly disturbing. The visions go away, and Jacob is cured, making null and void all the mystery and integrity the film worked so hard to achieve.

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