31 Days of Hell: Jacob's Ladder

For the latest 31 Days of Hell review, we take a step back to Jacob's Ladder.

"Hello. Is there anybody in there?"
Some of the greatest works of art of all time are born out of the creators’ nightmares.  James Cameron’s The Terminator, for instance, came out of a fever dream about a red-eyed robot rising out of hellacious flames.  David Lynch and David Cronenberg refer to their work as an output of their dreams and nightmares.

 In 1980, Ghost screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin dreamt of being trapped in a subway, an image which would become the centerpiece of his spiritual horror drama, Jacob’s Ladder.  Shopping his screenplay around Hollywood, studio executives loved the idea but were terrified of Rubin’s Old Testament imagery of angels and demons in the modern world.  An obsessive of the afterlife, Rubin redirected his attention to Douglas Trumbull’s ill-fated Brainstorm and Wes Craven’s Deadly Friend, both of which moderately translated Rubin’s visions to the screen but still devoid of his honest, naked voice.  It wasn’t until Flashdance and Fatal Attraction director Adrian Lyne took an interest in adapting Rubin’s story to the screen that Jacob’s Ladder finally would have its day and push horror fans into a deeply disturbing yet spiritually enriching arena never seen before in modern cinema.

Set in New York City, 1975, the film tells the tale of Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins), a former Vietnam veteran working in the post office living with co-worker Jezzie (the late Elizabeth Peña).  Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and increasingly disturbing hallucinations, Jacob is on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  Or is he?  Army friends from his former platoon attest to experiencing the same hallucinations and the men attempt to form a legal case only to drop it out of fear of bureaucratic retaliation.  Soon threats on Jacob’s life are made and he finds himself sliding further into madness until he isn’t sure what is fantasy or reality anymore and calls into question whether or not he in fact is alive or dead.  Only his close friend and chiropractor Louis (Danny Aiello) may hold the key to Jacob’s nightmare he can’t wake up from.

"I am like so buff."
Surreal, metaphysical and deeply entrenched in theological warfare, Jacob’s Ladder is at once a deathly terrifying horror film and punishingly draining human drama about the process of dying as well as a requiem for veterans whose lives have been wrecked irrevocably by the Vietnam war.  Deriving its title from Genesis 28:12, the film is a metaphor for the purgatory between Heaven and Hell.  Rubin’s story also draws heavily from the Tibetan Book of the Dead and ponders notions of our everyday reality as an afterlife we’re unaware of.   A work of endless theorizing and interpretation, part of the film’s power comes from Adrian Lyne’s direction of the material.  Instead of purporting Rubin’s prewritten visualizations of Old Testament angels and demons, Lyne opted for low speed photography of human figures to make them move at a geometric rate as well as utilizing practical prosthetic effects and jump cuts to create inexplicable, inhuman manifestations that could be characterized as bizarre psychosis or something far more spiritually threatening.  Incidentally, David Lean’s composer Maurice Jarre would provide the score for both Rubin’s Ladder as well as Jerry Zucker’s hugely successful adaptation of Rubin’s Ghost, providing a score that is as terrifying and despairing as it is deeply moving.

Initially, it all proved to be too much for viewers, who left test screenings for Lyne’s adaptation in a catatonic state, and some slight trims were made to lighten the load, much to Rubin’s chagrin.  Rubin also balked at Lyne’s decision to interpret his angels and demons less literally, as the hallucinations and Jacob Singer never share the same shot.  Further still, Lyne was pegged by elitists as simply copying the surrealist leitmotifs of David Lynch.  In the years since, however, Jacob’s Ladder has grown in stature in the eyes of critics and audiences.  Called by Reverand Billy Graham “one of the most spiritual films of all time” and posing a direct influence on William Malone’s remake of House on Haunted Hill as well as the Silent Hill franchise (notably Bergen Street in Silent Hill 3), Jacob’s Ladder is regarded as one of the scariest, most draining and fully realized horror films ever made.  Believe it or not, Jacob’s Ladder was actually shown to people on the brink of their own deaths, who later attested the film actually helped them cope healthily with their fears of the afterlife.  There aren’t many horror films out there that confront the beauty and terror of eternity with wide open arms.  Furthermore, name the last horror film you saw that painted a realistic picture of those whose life altering experiences of the horrors of warfare cannot die off with time and tide.

-Andrew Kotwicki