Tri-Star Pictures missed a golden opportunity releasing Jacob's Ladder two days after Halloween in 1990 instead of, say, a week before it. Where many movies timed to coincide with the holiday focus on blood and gore, Jacob's Ladder is about a man trying to stop demons from overtaking his soul. What's more Halloween-ish than that?
The film is a thriller about a Vietnam veteran plagued by visions of devils and monsters -- not just in his dreams but in real life, lurking in the shadows, pursuing him on the streets. The man, named Jacob Singer, is played by Tim Robbins, who in 1990 still had a guileless, almost naive quality to his performances, making him instantly sympathetic as a man beset with psychological problems.
On first viewing, the film is nerve-racking for a number of reasons, not least of which is that we don't know what is happening to Jacob. Is he losing his mind? Are there really demons all around him? Either is a possibility -- there are movies where supernatural things are real, and there are movies where they are only figments of crazy people's imaginations. Part of the thrill of Jacob's Ladder is not knowing which kind of movie it is.
Whatever the case, the director, Adrian Lyne, goes out of his way to put Jacob's visions in a real-world context. Lyne (who had previously made Flashdance and Fatal Attraction and would later direct Indecent Proposal) talks in the DVD's behind-the-scenes documentary about shooting all of the special effects "live," without post-production trickery. This makes them look less like glitzy Hollywood magic and more like authentic images. One of Lyne's most memorable creepy shots is of a man violently shaking his head back and forth at an impossible rate of speed. To film it, Lyne simply had the actor move his head rapidly while cranking the camera in slow-motion. Played back at regular speed, the head moves so fast it becomes blurry and jittery. Ta-da. The shot was effective, and it's been copied many times since. (I'm told that the Silent Hill video games, in particular, owe a lot to Jacob's Ladder.)
Lyne was also intent on making Jacob's visions of demons appear plausible. He knew that if he went the traditional route -- devils with red skin, tails and horns -- it would look silly. Instead, he makes a demonic nurse's horns appear filed-down under her hat, and a demon's wings look like an extension of its shoulder blades, like a grotesque (but possible!) aberration of nature.
Religious symbolism abounds in the film, starting with the title, which refers to an incident in the 28th chapter of Genesis where the prophet Jacob dreams of a ladder ascending to heaven. In the dream, God promises Jacob that his descendants would be as numerous as the dust, and he declares the land on which Jacob is sleeping to be holy ground -- the Promised Land. It is at this same site that God later visits Jacob and changes his name to Israel.
It's an important moment in Jewish history, and while the movie never says its Jacob is Jewish, it seems likely enough. He has a Jewish surname (Singer), and the screenwriter, Bruce Joel Rubin, has spoken of his own Jewish heritage and intense interest in spiritual matters. In the movie, Jacob's children are named after Old Testament figures, Eli(jah), Jed(ediah), and Gabriel; his ex-wife is named Sarah, who in the Bible was Jacob's grandmother, the wife of Abraham. Jacob's girlfriend is Jezebel, an extremely uncommon name in modern times because of the reputation of the biblical Jezebel. She tempted the nation of Israel into worshipping false gods; the name "Jezebel" is now synonymous with conniving temptresses or harlots. That Jacob would have a girlfriend named Jezebel who behaves, indeed, like a Jezebel is just one of many indications that some of what's happening in Jacob's Ladder might be allegorical, or even imaginary.
We're told that though Jacob works a numbing job at the post office, he holds an advanced degree in philosophy. He's twice seen with a copy of Albert Camus's The Stranger, which might simply be a generic example of what a philosophy lover would read in his spare time, but it might also be a clue about the film's meaning. Camus, though he didn't like labels, was considered by most people to be an existentialist, and there is certainly existentialism in Jacob's Ladder. When Jacob sees himself wheeled into a hellish hospital basement on a gurney, he has this conversation with a masked surgeon:
JACOB: Get me out of here!
DOCTOR: Where do you want to go?
DOCTOR: Home? This is your home. You're dead.
JACOB: Dead? No. No, I just hurt my back. I'm not dead.
DOCTOR: What are you, then?
JACOB: I'm alive!
DOCTOR: Then what you doing here?
JACOB: I don't know. This isn't happening.
DOCTOR: What is happening?
JACOB: Get me out of here!
DOCTOR: There is no out of here.
Camus believed that while the universe is indifferent to us, we can still create meaning in our lives through our actions -- that part is up to us. In a similar vein, Jacob's friend and chiropractor, Louis (Danny Aiello), cites the medieval Christian philosopher Meister Eckhart when he says, "If you're frightened of dying and holding on, you'll see devils tearing your life away. But if you've made your peace then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the Earth." We can't choose whether or not we die, but we can choose how we view it.
This interest in philosophy has been enthusiastically used in TV's Lost, which, like Jacob's Ladder, name-checks famous thinkers and has inspired much discussion about whether its characters are dead or alive. Many fans have mentioned Lost and Jacob's Ladder in the same breath while describing their theories. And the mysterious entity that controls the island on that TV show? His name is Jacob.
But on top of everything else, Jacob's Ladder is also about the psychological damage that war inflicts upon soldiers. After Jacob learns that the other surviving members of his platoon have also been suffering demonic hallucinations, the story moves into conspiracy-theory territory: Did the U.S. government secretly give soldiers experimental drugs in Vietnam? (The drug they suspect was slipped into their rations was code-named "Ladder" because it quickly takes you down to the bottom.) Jacob's Ladder comes long after most of the other prominent films about screwed-up Vietnam vets (Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, First Blood, etc.) -- but Rubin, the screenwriter, wrote it 10 years before it was actually produced, back when such themes were more fashionable.
The film's ending, which I won't spoil for those who haven't seen it, uses a device that has since been used in at least a dozen other movies, sometimes effectively and sometimes cheaply. Jacob's Ladder (which, to be fair, was hardly the first film to do it) gets it right, using a "twist" ending that makes sense, not a corny trick that undermines what came before it. A second viewing takes some of the mystery out of the story, but it's still an intense and creepy psychological thriller no matter what time of year you watch it.
FROM THE TIME CAPSULE: When Jacob's Ladder was released 18 years ago this week, on Nov. 2, 1990...
• Ghost, by the same screenwriter, had been in theaters 17 weeks and was still in the top 10. Goodfellas, released seven weeks earlier, was plugging away. In two weeks, Home Alone -- starring Macaulay Culkin, who appears uncredited as Jacob's dead son in Jacob's Ladder -- would be released and become the year's biggest money-maker.
• On TV, Beverly Hills 90210 was less than a month old. Pee-Wee's Playhouse was about to end its four-year run, though repeats would continue to air until the following summer, when Mr. Herman's public indecency charge would embarrass CBS into pulling them off the air. The most popular shows on TV were Cheers, The Cosby Show, and Roseanne.
• The No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart was ... wait for it ... "Ice Ice Baby" by Vanilla Ice. It was actually the song's one and only week in the top spot, believe it or not.
• At the top of the New York Times Best Seller List was Jean M. Auel's The Plains of Passage, a book that, I'm not gonna lie to you, I have never heard of in my life. In third place, though: Stephen King's Four Past Midnight. Ahhh, there we go. Familiarity.
• Margaret Thatcher was about to be replaced by John Major as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
• Composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein had recently retired and then, five days later, died of a heart attack. Author Roald Dahl had three weeks left to live.
• Future child star Jonathan Lipnicki was less than two weeks old. Pop stars JoJo and David Archuleta were still percolating in their respective wombs, due out in another six weeks or so.
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"Eric's Time Capsule" appears every Monday at Film.com. You can visit Eric at his website, where everything happens only in your imagination.