(SPOILER ALERT: This article will discuss plot points, including the ending, of a film that was released in the previous century. If for some reason you have not yet seen Jacob’s Ladder, adjust your reading plans accordingly.)
When you think horror movies, a murderer’s row of iconic directors immediately pops to mind: Argento, Carpenter, Cronenberg, Hooper, Craven. They’re so familiar to horror fans that first names aren’t necessary. But it can be equally fascinating when a filmmaker not typically associated with scary movies decides to tackle the genre. John Landis and William Friedkin, for example, have only made a couple of horror movies apiece. But those films were strong enough to forever link them to horror. You could make the same case for Stanley Kubrick. He only made one but I think most people (besides Stephen King, of course) think it was a pretty solid effort.
Then you have the real outliers, folks who are just visiting the dark side. Think Rob Reiner (Misery), Robert Zemeckis (What Lies Beneath and the horror-adjacent Death Becomes Her), and pretty much everybody who ever directed an episode of Tales From The Crypt. But surprisingly enough, one of the darkest visions from these horror dabblers came from the guy who directed Flashdance.
In 1990, Adrian Lyne was riding high on the blockbuster success of Fatal Attraction (a movie that’s usually classified with the higher-class “suspense thrillers”…but come on, it’s basically a horror movie). He had enough clout to get Jacob’s Ladder out of development hell and into production. Bruce Joel Rubin’s script for Jacob’s Ladder had been kicking around for years, with such names as Ridley Scott and Sidney Lumet taking a crack at it. Lyne made some significant changes to Rubin’s script, lending the finished film a much more disturbing atmosphere than it likely would have had otherwise. (Rubin, of course, had another big paranormal hit of a much different kind in 1990 with Ghost.)
Lyne cast Tim Robbins (then best known for his comedic work in such films as Bull Durham and…um, Howard The Duck) as Jacob Singer. During the Vietnam War, Singer is badly wounded in a brutal firefight that wipes out much of his platoon. Back in the States, he’s a postman struggling to return to civilian life. He’s separated from his wife following the traumatic death of their son, Gabe (played, somewhat distractingly, by an uncredited Macaulay Culkin). Even worse, he’s begun to suffer from severe hallucinations, high fevers and other ailments. When one of his old Army buddies (Pruitt Taylor Vince) is mysteriously killed, he compares notes with the other survivors of his platoon (including Ving Rhames and Eriq La Salle). They come to the conclusion that something must have happened to them back in Vietnam and whatever it was, it’s coming back to haunt them.
So far, so good. Lyne films all of this with a palpable sense of dread and menace, his signature carefully placed shafts of light and banks of rolling fog getting put to great use. The hallucinations Jacob endures are genuinely disturbing, from a near miss on a subway track to the bravura sequence with Jacob strapped down on a gurney in one of the creepiest abandoned hospitals in film history, being tended to by eyeless doctors with hypodermic needles the size of trombones. But here’s the thing (and here comes that spoiler I warned you about at the top): Jacob’s dead. He was mortally wounded in that firefight and died in a mobile hospital tent while still in ‘Nam.
When I first saw Jacob’s Ladder back in 1990, this reveal soured the entire movie for me. For one thing, it’s not exactly a twist. We’re explicitly told several times that this is exactly what’s going on. Jacob even has a palm reader tell him point blank that he’s dead pretty early on. It’s a little like if Citizen Kane had opened with the words, “My sled!” instead of “Rosebud”.
Also, it essentially turns the entire film into a protracted version of the great short subject An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge (which also aired as an episode of The Twilight Zone). There isn’t anything inherently wrong with that (although I admit to being biased against movies that take longer to do the same exact thing as a much shorter predecessor). But Jacob’s hallucinatory life is filled with details and characters that are extremely specific. These certainly help sell the reality of the situation but don’t quite fit comfortably once they’re revealed for what they are.
Danny Aiello’s role as an angelic chiropractor (I assume either Ruben or Lyne have had some serious back problems) is easy enough to explain away. But Elizabeth Peña has a thankless role as Jacob’s “current” girlfriend who presumably never actually existed. We get no sense that this is some other figure from his past who he has recast into this role. She’s presumably a demon (her name is Jezebel, after all) but for the most part, she seems like an overwhelmed young woman who’s genuinely trying to help her partner. Almost all of the other hallucinatory characters have a mysterious aloofness to them that sets them apart. But Peña seems like a real person and it’s a shame that she and the audience aren’t given more to work with.
All this being said, there are plenty of people who admire Jacob’s Ladder in its entirety and find it to be a disturbing and even profound horror movie. For me, it remains a movie full of brilliant individual moments that unfortunately don’t ever add up to anything more than that. The allegorical elements don’t seem entirely thought out, which may be a result of Lyne’s tinkering with Ruben’s script. As long as the movie focuses on Jacob Singer’s brilliantly art-directed hallucinations and paranoia, it works like gangbusters. It’s only when it tries to spin the horror into something more meaningful that it goes awry. I find Jacob’s Ladder to be a frustrating near-miss. As always, your mileage may vary.