Horror Month Day 15: Jacob’s Ladder

Guest writer Ryan McSwain is here to gush about his favorite horror movie. Check out his new horror-thriller novel, Monsters All the Way Down, available in softcover and on Kindle. You can follow Ryan McSwain on his blog, Twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads.

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I’ve loved horror movies since I was a little kid, watching the old Universal Monsters with my dad. As I got older, it became harder to find movies that provided a genuine scare. I’m not talking about cat-jumping-out-of-closets scares, I’m talking about slithering-under-your-skin, festering-in-your-subconscious scares. The kind you find when going down Jacob’s Ladder.

Jacob's Ladder poster

This movie really needs the Mondo poster treatment.

Typically described as a psychological thriller, Jacob’s Ladder still lives in horror country. It’s full of adult fears like mental illness, war, and the death of a child, but it’s seasoned with terrifying, grotesque sequences that stick with you like rotten bubblegum. If you want a horror film with superior direction, intelligent writing, talented performances, practical effects, and visceral terror, put Jacob’s Ladder on your list.

Jezzie's eyes

The director wanted the audience to ask, “Did I see it or didn’t I??”

In 1975, Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) is back from a horrific experience Vietnam. Plagued by memories of the war and the death of his youngest son, he is separated from his wife and remaining kids, and is living with a woman he works with at the post office. After getting trapped in a nightmarish subway station, Singer’s sanity unravels—or maybe he’s legitimately hunted by demonic forces. Plagued by flashbacks and visions, Singer tries to find out the truth about what happened to his unit in Vietnam.

A needle from Jacob's Ladder

He has pretty good aim, considering.

This cult favorite is the only horror film directed by Adrian Lyne, famous for Flashdance and socially-acceptable erotic thrillers like Indecent Proposal and Fatal Attraction. It sounds like it was a fruitful collaboration between him and screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin, who also wrote Ghost and Deadly Friend. The original script was full of traditional Judeo-Christian imagery of heaven and hell, but Lyne decided to ground everything in reality and flesh, with the demons resembling those who suffer from thalidomide deformities. According to the commentary, Lyne drew inspiration from the paintings of Francis Bacon and the photography of Joel-Peter Witkin. Just a heads up before you google Witkin: his stuff is all very NSFW/NSFL.

Witkin photo

Lyne brings this photo to life in the film. Because we all needed that, am I right?

Jacob’s Ladder already has a head start over most horror movies with the director, but also has a rock-solid cast. Tim Robbins gives his best performance since Howard the Duck. He is totally believable and sympathetic. The recently departed Elizabeth Peña (La Bamba, *batteries not included) manages to be casually likeable, crazy sexy, and absolutely terrifying, sometimes all in the same scene. There are plenty of hey-it’s-that-guys, with strong performances from Jason Alexander (Seinfeld, Rold Gold Pretzel commercials), Danny Aiello (The Godfather: Part II, Chu Chu and the Philly Flash), Patricia Kalember (Sisters, ABC Afterschool Special), Eriq La Salle (ER, Adventures from the Book of Virtues), S. Epatha Merkerson (Law & Order, Pee-wee’s Playhouse), and Ving Rhames (Pulp Fiction, Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot). Even Lewis Black shows up. And we don’t give enough credit to Macaulay Culkin for his childhood acting. This came out in ’90, so he was maybe eight or nine-years-old, and he’s flawless. The cast’s greatest asset, however, is that god among men, Pruitt Taylor Vince, and his glorious peepers.

Pruitt Taylor Vince in Jacob's Ladder

Someone give this guy his own show.

As for the nuts and bolts of the film, everything is top notch. The shots and angles are creative without being distracting, and it has the best set dressing and lighting since Blade Runner. Maurice Jarre’s score is subtle and haunting, just as it should be. The editor, Tom Wolf, did Taxi Driver and Equilibrium, and he took home the Oscar for The Right Stuff. So the editing is right up there with the music video for Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.”

Horns on nurse

On second thought, ma?am, you can leave the hat on.

Lyne wanted all the special effects done live and in-camera, without any extra post-production. I have a love/hate relationship with CGI in movies, and the physical reality of the disturbing images in Jacob’s Ladder gives them a real weight and substance. The only thing scarier than Jacob’s Ladder is the thought of them making the film with the CGI available in 1990. The film originated the shaky head effect you now see all over the place in horror films. They achieved this—Lyne calls it ‘Vibroman’—by filming at 4 frames a second and then playing it back at 24 frames a second.

The Blu-ray contains some deleted scenes—the expanded ‘Antidote’ ending—which are amazing, but I’m glad they were cut. It’s the perfect example of the restraint shown by the Lyne. Still, it leads to my one real criticism of the film: on repeat viewings, it becomes clear that the ending is missing some pieces. I wish they’d given us a little closure with Jezzie and explain why Singer ends up at that house for the perfect ending. With the benefit of hindsight, I know how I’d fill the hole, but what they have is still more than serviceable.

The reach of the film is far. It’s named as a primary inspiration for the Silent Hill and The Evil Within games, American Horror Story: Asylum, and a dozen others. It’s a huge influence on my own writing, so I have to give it credit for some of the nightmares brought on by Monsters All the Way Down. I’m sure Jacob’s Ladder will continue to inspire and terrify for a long, long time.

Jacob’s Ladder theatrical trailer:

  • Skewed_View

    I think I’m going to need to give this another watch. I saw it as a kid, but don’t really remember being impressed or scared, I just thought it was weird. Maybe I was too young to know I was supposed to be scared?

  • I’m in the same boat as you. I remember seeing this when I was younger and not really getting it. It creeped the shit out of me but did not resonate. I’ll definitely need to revisit this as well.

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