31 Days to Scare ~ Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

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The Facts
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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

Rated: R

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.

31 Days to Scare ~ Happy Birthday to Me (1981)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: At the snobby Crawford Academy, popular high school senior Virginia Wainwright survives a freak accident, but suffers from memory loss and traumatic blackouts. As she attempts to resume a normal life, something terrible is happening – her friends are ruthlessly murdered one-by-one.

Stars: Melissa Sue Anderson, Glenn Ford, Lawrence Dane, Jack Blum, Matt Craven, Lisa Langlois, Tracy Bregman, Lenore Zahn, Lesleh Donaldson

Director: J. Lee Thompson

Rated: R

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: By the time Happy Birthday to Me rolled into theaters in May of 1981, movie houses were becoming saturated with holiday themed slasher pics after the booming success of Halloween in 1978 and Friday the 13th in 1980.  No government holiday stone was left unturned and no religious day of remembrance was safe from having a killer (or killers) hunting down people that just want to have a good Easter egg roll or plant in tree in honor of Arbor Day.  See Prom Night, My Bloody Valentine, and Terror Train if you need a refresher.

What sets Happy Birthday to Me apart from the others is that it actually feels like it’s trying for the majority of its running length, aiming to provide audiences with some unique kills and a fair number of red herrings to keep you guessing until the totally ludicrous finale.  Underneath the gore and out of left field plot twists lies a fairly interesting film that isn’t totally lost along the way to its genre’s normal trappings.

A puzzling late career entry for director J. Lee Thompson (the original Cape Fear, The Guns of the Navarone) and one of actor Glenn Ford’s last roles, this nicely budgeted Canadian produced flick has Mary Ingalls herself (Melissa Sue Anderson) as a popular girl who just can’t keep her friends alive.  Still feeling the lingering effects of a traumatic brain injury due to a car crash that claimed the life of her mother, she starts to suffer blackouts and when she wakes up finds that another coed has been murdered.  With her birthday approaching the guest list gets liberally trimmed by a killer that likes to off their victims in a most cinematic fashion (I mean, just look at the poster!).

It’s clear that along the way the original script was jiggered with and lost some of its intended focus.  Though it feels like it’s headed one way for its big reveal, the ending provided is one no one would ever be able to predict in a million years.  I’m guessing there was a last minute reshoot to make the conclusion less obvious but in doing so it renders a heap of earlier clues and plot points useless.  It’s a cheat and a big cheat at that, but it’s just looney tunes enough to make it memorable.

Anderson never was that strong of an actress and it shows here as well.  Whether crying, screaming, or saying her lines in a flat monotone, a Scream Queen she was not destined to be.  Ford collects his paycheck without much shame while a bunch of Canadian teens never make that much of an impression, save for Matt Craven (Indian Summer) and Tracy Bregman as Anderson’s doomed chums.

It’s a film that goes from spooky to silly to scary to stupid but it’s not a bad party to think about attending – trust me, you’ve been to way worse real birthdays.  And don’t forget the creepy theme song that plays over the end credits…

Mid-Day Mini ~ Indian Summer

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Seven friends reunite for a week-long reunion at a summer camp in Ontario they used to attend as children which is now threatened with being closed down.

Stars: Alan Arkin, Matt Craven, Diane Lane, Julie Warner, Vincent Spano, Sam Raimi, Elizabeth Perkins, Kimberly Williams, Kevin Pollak, Bill Paxton

Director: Mike Binder

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  This is truly one of my favorite movies and my appreciation of it has only grown as I’ve become an adult.  Released in 1993, Indian Summer was called out as ‘The Big Chill goes to summer camp’ — a not entirely unfair comparison when you consider it involves a group of friends gathering together after years apart to reminisce about their youth, rekindle old flames, and come to terms where their life journey has taken them.

Why this film has become as valuable to me as an adult is the way it handles the sensitivity and humor that’s found in the transition people go through as they age.  Some people can never really outgrow their teen angst or feelings of inadequacy…just as some see maturing as a way to start over again.   Director/screenwriter Binder (Crossing the Bridge, The Upside of Anger) manages to shuffle a wonderful cast around in situations that may seem like retreads of any number of films…without ever making them feel old-hat.

That’s partly thanks to the breezy script but most certainly attributed to a fine cast of actors who interact with each other and their surroundings over the course of their week-long stay at the summer camp of their youth.  The standout to me is still Perkins (The Doctor, Avalon) as a wise-cracking but wise single that has something to say in every situation but closely guards her own emotions.  She’s followed by Lane’s grieving widow that maybe hasn’t truly accepted the loss she experienced.  Warner and Spano are appealing actors that I miss seeing in film — their troubled marriage  has impacts on several other characters.

Craven, Pollack, and Williams too have nice turns with their well-drawn characters and a scene stealing Raimi (director of Oz The Great and Powerful and the original The Evil Dead) is a riot as a simpleton handyman around camp.  Academy Award winner Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine, Argo, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone) balances his deadpan aloofness with a warmth that reminds us all of someone we look up to and want to emulate.

Filmed on location at Binder’s Canadian summer camp, the movie absolutely glows with a vibrancy that few films can really capture well.  Returning to this film at least once a year I find myself drawn to its wacky humor, late-night hi-jinks, and serious heart – it has an authenticity that keeps me smiling and continues to be a film I whip out when someone needs a recommendation for quality entertainment.