“Something weird is going on here. What is it about us? Even in ‘Nam it was always weird. Are we all crazy or something?” –line in original screenplay to Jacob’s Ladder
DIRECTED BY: Adrian Lyne
FEATURING: Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Peña, Danny Aiello
PLOT: Jacob Singer (nicknamed ”Professor” by his army buddies due to his glasses and Ph.D.) is wounded in Vietnam after a harrowing, disorienting battle. While he is on duty in Vietnam, his young son dies; years later, he works in New York City as a postman and has a sexy new girlfriend, Jezzie. Jacob begins suffering flashbacks of the day he was wounded, along with hallucinations in which everyday people take on demonic forms—catching brief glimpses of tails, horns, and howling faces with blank features—and eventually discovers that the other members of his unit are experiencing similar symptoms.
- The script for Jacob’s Ladder shuffled between Hollywood desks for years, impressing executives but not being viewed as a marketable project. The script was cited by American Film Magazine as one of the best unproduced screenplays.
- Before he asked to direct Jacob’s Ladder, British director Adrian Lyne was best known for sexy, edgy, and profitable projects such as Flashdance (1983), 9 1/2 Weeks (1986) and Fatal Attraction (1987).
- Screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin (who later wrote Ghost  and other commercial properties) says that his script was partly influenced by The Tibetan Book of the Dead.
- Adrian Lyne states that some of the hellish visual cues in the film, including the whirring and vibrating head effect, were inspired by the woks of grotesque painter Francis Bacon.
- Lyne deleted scenes and changed the ending after test audiences found the film to be too intense.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: A blurred, whirring human head which shakes uncontrollably from side to side at tremendous speed, seen several times throughout the film. The effect looks mechanical, as if the head were an unbalanced ball attached to an out-of-control hydraulic neck. It was achieved by filming an actor casually shaking his head from side to side at four frames per second, which produced a terrifying effect when played back at the standard twenty-four frames per second. The technique has been imitated in movies, video games, music videos, and even a porno flick since, but has never since been used to such fearsome effect.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Like many psychological thrillers, Jacob’s Ladder
Original Trailer for Jacob’s Ladder
strives to keep the audience disoriented and off-balance, wondering what is real and what is false. The movie achieves this effect wonderfully, but what gives it it’s cachet as a weird movie are two intense hallucination sequences: one at an horrifically orgiastic party intermittently lit by a strobe light, and one where the protagonist lies helpless on a hospital gurney as he’s wheeled down an increasingly bizarre and alarming hospital corridor. Both scenes are difficult to forget, equal parts creepy surrealism and visceral body-horror.
COMMENTS: I can’t watch Jacob’s Ladder without comparing it to Alan Parker’s Angel Heart. The similarities are obvious: both were psychological thrillers with supernatural elements, both examine death and its aftermath, both were big budget extravaganzas directed by Englishmen working within the Hollywood system. Both mixed primary themes of mortality with strong (and arguably gratuitous) undercurrents of sexuality. One film was released near the end of the 1980s, the other at the dawn of the 1990s, and its plausible that Angel Heart‘s commercial success helped convince the studio there was a market for this sort of dark supernatural thriller, allowing Jacob’s Ladder to be greenlit after rotting away in script libraries for almost a decade.
Despite their similarities in theme and tone, Angel Heart was not deemed weird enough to be one of the 366 exemplary weird movies, while Jacob’s Ladder makes it, by the skin of it’s teeth. The sole difference is that while Angel Heart delivers only a single bombastically surreal scene (the blood-drenched lovemaking between Mickey Rourke and Lisa Bonet), Jacob’s Ladder contains two such memorable montages.
The first of Jacob’s Ladder‘s centerpiece sequences demonstrates Adrian Lyne’s remarkable talent for horror, a gift in which he’s since grown disinterested. Throughout the film, Lyne doles out only brief glimpses of the demons that beset Jacob: a flash of a tail, a set of horns, a blank face staring out of a subway car. The distorted images flash on screen fleetingly–less than one second, at times. This technique sometimes creates a distressing, nearly subliminal effect in the viewer, but most of the time the image is clear enough to send our imaginations into overdrive, to make us believe we have seen something exponentially more awful than what a snapshot would reveal. In the cocktail party scene, Lyne takes those little teasing flashes that we have been glimpsing out of the corner of our eyes and accelerates them mercilessly, not showing us more but exposing his all gargoyles in quick succession, accentuating the effect by using a strobe light. For the first time we view the man with the shaking head, and the selective strobe also quickly picks out images of fluttering wings and party-goers in orgiastic abandon—including his beloved Jezzie shameless betraying him on the dance floor with a Satanic presence.
As powerful as that montage is, it’s nothing compared to the horrific intensity of the hospital scene. This segment is Jacob’s Ladder‘s masterpiece, a fast, shaky trip from an already painful reality down into the bowels of Hell. Brought in for some minor injuries, we see Jacob being anesthetized and are told that he’s “out.” Orderlies wheel him down a strangely abandoned corridor on a gurney with one shaky wheel, and we soon realize that Jacob has come awake on his stretcher. As he glances down the corridor, the atmosphere become progressively more disturbing—the patients are deformed, mad and tormented, and the floor is littered with body parts and gore. The sequence is disturbing enough on its own terms, but it also plays on our fears of being poorly anesthetized, improperly drugged, while we’re under the control of men with knives and needles who want to violate our bodies. It’s a tour de force of surreal horror, and a scene that by itself justifies Jacob‘s spot on any comprehensive list of weird movies.
Despite these strengths, I believe Angel Heart is ultimately the better movie, notwithstanding its deficiency of weirdness. The reason is because the plot flows more smoothly in the earlier film. Angel Heart takes on a standard thriller structure; the film misdirects our attention until the very end, where the sudden twist makes us look at what has gone before in a different light. It gives us that “ah-ha!” jolt at the end that makes detective stories so rewarding.
Jacob’s Ladder takes a different, more difficult and ambitious strategy towards generating suspense. It presents us with two possible explanations for Jacob’s condition, then tries to give them exactly the same weight, jerking the viewer back and forth between the two equally plausible solutions. It’s a gambit that’s thrilling in the middle of the movie, when we, the story’s jury, are weighing both sets of facts in our minds. But the script can’t sustain this exhilarating feeling through dual climaxes, and by the end the movie fades out instead of peaking.
Or, rather, perhaps the movie peaks too early. As mentioned before, the sequence on the unbalanced hospital gurney is the highlight of the film. After the scene concludes, the character that plays Jacob’s spiritual guide appears and gives Jacob a complete explanation of what is happening to him. This would have served as an excellent opportunity to segue straight to the film’s denouement. Instead, the story returns to what should have been already revealed as the false explanation, and gives it one more shot.
The second, false resolution to Jacob’s dilemma, however, contains no climax of its own. A climax to this story arc was written, but it ended up on the cutting room floor after terrified test audiences reacted poorly to the onslaught of intensity. (It’s available as a deleted scene named “The Antidote” on the DVD). This scene establishes a false hope that Jacob has been cured of his persistent hallucinations, an expectation that the film then could have gleefully wrecked. As it is, in the theatrical cut the “false” climax consists only of an exposition, with a character appearing out of the woodwork to tell Jacob what he wants to believe.
Lyne has publicly wondered whether he made a mistake by authorizing the cuts in the film. Ultimately, returning the antidote sequence would have helped, but including it while reordering the sequence of events to push the most interesting scene towards the climax would have helped even more. Jacob’s Ladder would have had a more satisfying flow if it had stuck to the traditional thriller structure of misdirection leading to a twist, rather than trying to string along dual plotlines to the bitter end. The “false” climax could have occurred at approximately the place the hospital sequence occurs now. Then that resolution could been reversed immediately, leading immediately to the film’s tour-de-force in the hospital and quickly into the denouement.
Lyne falters further by including a pre-credits explanatory note that brings the false resolution—which the film has just finished refuting, both dramatically and literally—back to the fore. It’s a misguided attempt to strike a final note of ambiguity that isn’t, and shouldn’t be, present anymore. The message strikes a sour note at the end, forcibly reminding us what is so frustrating about the way Jacob’s Ladder chooses to handle its complex plot.
In “Building Jacob’s Ladder“, the very good “making of” documentary included on the DVD release, scriptwriter Bruce Joel Rubin (rather self-importantly) advises, “If you watch this movie with your mind trying to comprehend all of what’s going on… you’re going to be torn into a million pieces, you’re going to be pulled from one thing to another. This movie is a whole cloth.” While that was undoubtedly the intent, the fact is that Jacob’s Ladder is a movie whose parts have a far greater impact than their whole. Watch it for the terrific set pieces; if the whole works for you, fine. If not, at least you’ll always have that hospital gurney to fall back on.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“It evokes a paranoid-schizophrenic state as effectively as any film I have ever seen. Despite an ending that is intended as victorious, the movie is a thoroughly painful and depressing experience – but, it must be said, one that has been powerfully written, directed and acted.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)
“True to his resume, director Lyne produces a frenetic battery of visceral images, ominous music and that ol’ faithful standby, the eerie background chorus… To give Lyne his relentless due, this does make for some heart-thumping moments. But it also causes ‘Ladder’ to fall ultimately flat on its surrealistic face, the victim of too many fake-art sequences.” -Desson Howe, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)
“Anyone approaching this film without preconceived notions of what they’re in for is likely to take a wild trip that offers dozens of possible explanations for what’s transpiring – a journey into the Twilight Zone. It’s weird and surreal, but it ends with most of the holes plugged and all but a few of the loose ends tied into a tidy package.”–James Berardinelli, reelviews.com (DVD)
IMDB LINK: Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Up ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ and into the Hell of a Veteran’s Psyche–A New York Times article providing background on the movie’s genesis
At the Movies: Jacob’s Ladder–Film critics Gene Siskel (RIP) and Roger Ebert discuss Jacob’s Ladder on the popular TV program
The Artisan DVD (buy) contains three deleted scenes, director’s commentary, the documentary “Building Jacob’s Ladder“, and bios of the cast and crew. UPDATE 9/16/2010: There is now a Blu-ray release (buy), with the same special features as the DVD.