Synopsis: The life of a traumatized Vietnam veteran begins to unravel as the line between reality and nightmarish visions becomes blurred
Stars: Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Peña, Danny Aiello, Matt Craven, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Jason Alexander, Patricia Kalember, Eriq La Salle, Ving Rhames
Director: Adrian Lyne
Running Length: 113 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: There are a few reasons why I do this special series 31 Days to Scare every year. First and foremost is that it commits me to writing something every day and doesn’t give me an excuse to forget or procrastinate. Another reason is that I’m primarily watching horror/suspense films throughout October so why not make it easier on myself and write about what’s totally fresh in my mind? The third reason is that is gives me an opportunity to go back and revisit older films that I’d been wanting to review but hadn’t or saw long ago and didn’t remember. I’ve found there’s a nice balance to doing that and during the year I’ll bookmark titles that I want to save for this month.
One of those selections that’s been in the hopper for a few cycles now is Jacob’s Ladder, a 1990 horror film from director Adrian Lyne. I’d seen it only once, when it was first released on VHS and never again since but bits and pieces of it had stuck with me over the years. I didn’t really recall the finer details of the plot so I figured I had enough distance to come at it with a decently unvarnished perspective. Often listed on lists of the best scary movies from that era, viewing Jacob’s Ladder as an adult I can see why it’s more mature take on death, hell, and demons wouldn’t have spoken to me as an adolescent. Now, the watch was harrowing.
Opening in 1971 Vietnam, we find Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins, Thanks for Sharing) and his platoon unaware of the danger waiting close by. An enemy attack leads to a frenzy of action and carnage, leveling the unit in what we think is one thing but turns out to be another bleak nightmare from a future Jacob who has already returned safely from the war. Obviously damaged by what he saw and experienced, he continues to have dreams of dying and these visions begin to manifest themselves in his daily life. He sees tentacles and tails on friends and loved ones, a charge nurse has something growing out of the back of her head, he’s pursued by a faceless gang of terrors, but none of this is witnessed by anyone else.
His girlfriend Jezzie (Elizabeth Peña, Grandma) is concerned at first but eventually turns fearful for Jacob as his body begins to show the effects of his paranoia. Still grieving the loss of his son from his first marriage, she tries to help him stave off those memories in the worst way possible and her tough love approach appears to the audience to be doing more harm than good. When Jacob meets up with his army buddies and discovers they too have been having similar visions, they start to uncover a conspiracy tied to their time in the war that may explain what’s happening to them now.
There’s more to Jacob’s Ladder than meets the eye at first glance. I don’t want to say it has a twist because then you’ll be spending the movie looking out for the tables to turn. Think of it more as a different way of viewing what you’ve just seen because it’s a really a key bit of information given to the audience at the very end. You may have already arrived at that information on your own but even knowing the ending myself and watching for any clues, Lyne and screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin (who would win an Oscar the same year for Ghost) do a remarkable job keeping their cards close while not cheating.
Known for directing his more adult films like Fatal Attraction, 9 ½ Weeks, and Flashdance, Lyne brings his same attention to detail and eye for making New York look ominous yet strangely attractive all at once. The movie would be spooky under any director considering Rubin’s trippy script but Lyne does actually fill it with arresting imagery that creates some honest to goodness frights. Not just your run of the mill jump scares but visuals of eyeless surgeons and bloody ghouls that will haunt you long after the movie has concluded. On the flip side, when Lyne wants to change the mood he’s able to take us to a lighter place to comfort us by having cinematographer Jeffrey L. Kimball (Top Gun) soften some of the harsh gradients.
I’ve never made a firm decision on my feelings toward Robbins but this turns out to be a great role for him. His lanky frame, glassy eyes, and sallow face speak to a man troubled by lingering memories from his past that have now come back to steal something more in the future. It’s a rough road Lyne asks him to travel but Robbins is up for the race. He’s well matched with the late Peña as his girlfriend that we aren’t sure if we fully trust or not. Required to be more naked than I think is necessary (until I remember this is an Adrian Lyne film), the actress handles these and other spoiler-y scenes near the end with a cool professionalism. Pour one out for Danny Aiello (Radio Days) as a kindly chiropractor and the rest of the platoon and large supporting cast filled with familiar faces.
Not a huge box office hit when first released, Jacob’s Ladder was given some semblance of a new life on VHS where it was able to find a more relaxed audience. I’m glad it did, too, because it’s a strong effort from all involved and one that has good replay value. The popularity was so big, in fact, that it was said to have influenced the creators of the video game Silent Hill and even got itself a lackluster remake in 2019. My advice is to stick with the original and give it a shot. Not only does it represent a fine slice of early ‘90s entertainment from a top director of the time but you might find yourself keeping a light or two on after.