Jacob's Ladder (film)
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Adrian Lyne|
|Produced by||Mario Kassar
Bruce Joel Rubin
Andrew G. Vajna
|Written by||Bruce Joel Rubin|
Pruitt Taylor Vince
|Music by||Maurice Jarre|
|Cinematography||Jeffrey L. Kimball|
|Edited by||Tom Rolf|
|Distributed by||TriStar Pictures|
Jacob's Ladder is a 1990 American psychological horror film directed by Adrian Lyne, written and produced by Bruce Joel Rubin and starring Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Peña and Danny Aiello. The Special Edition of the film was released on DVD by Artisan Entertainment in 1998 and on Blu-ray Disc by Lions Gate Entertainment in 2010.
The film's protagonist, Jacob, is a Vietnam veteran whose experiences prior to and during the war result in strange, fragmentary flashbacks and bizarre hallucinations that continue to haunt him. As his ordeal worsens, Jacob desperately attempts to figure out the truth.
Jacob's Ladder was made by Carolco Pictures ten years after being written by Rubin. It drew from several inspirations for its story and effects, including the short film An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and the paintings of Francis Bacon. Though only moderately successful upon release, the film garnered a cult following and became a source of influence for various other works such as the horror franchise Silent Hill. A loose remake of Jacob's Ladder was announced to be in works by LD Entertainment.
On October 6, 1971, American soldier Jacob Singer is with the 1st Air Cavalry Division, deployed in a village in the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam War, when his unit comes under heavy fire from the treeline. Many of Jacob's comrades are killed or wounded, while others begin to exhibit very abnormal behavior, some going catatonic and others collapsing into bloody seizures. Horrified, Jacob attempts to flee into the jungle, only to be stabbed in the stomach with a bayonet by an unseen assailant.
In 1975, Jacob wakes up in the New York City Subway, dressed as a postal worker and with a copy of the novel The Stranger in his hands. After Jacob finds himself trapped in the underground tunnels of the subway system, he tries to escape via the tracks, where he is nearly hit by a train.
The film then shifts back and forth between Jacob's chaotic memories of Vietnam, as well as memories of his late son Gabe (who was hit by a car and killed prior to the war) and ex-wife Sarah, to his present life as a mailman living in Brooklyn with a postal clerk named Jezzie (an abbreviation of Jezebel). He experiences grotesque hallucinations, apparently as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder, and faces more direct threats to his life.
As the hallucinations become increasingly horrifying, one of Jacob's old Army friends, Paul, contacts him to tell him of his similar experiences, but is soon killed when his car explodes.
After the funeral, his surviving platoon-mates confess to Jacob they too have been experiencing hallucinations, and agree to seek the truth about the incident through legal proceedings. They meet a lawyer, Mr. Geary, who at first says they have a case but then backs out after determining that they were never even in Vietnam, as they were all discharged during wargame training in Thailand. Jacob's comrades abandon the idea and Jacob himself is briefly kidnapped by government agents trying to silence him.
Eckhart saw Hell too. He said: "The only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won't let go of life, your memories, your attachments. They burn them all away. But they're not punishing you", he said. "They're freeing your soul. So, if you're frightened of dying and... you're 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."
Jacob is then approached by a man named Michael Newman (the same man is also seen treating his wounds in a medevac helicopter in one of the scenes in Vietnam). Michael claims to have been a chemist with the Army's chemical warfare division in Saigon, where he worked on creating "the Ladder", a drug that would increase aggression, taking people straight to their most primal urges. The drug was first tested on monkeys and then on a group of captured enemy combatants, with gruesome results. Later, small doses of the Ladder were secretly given to Jacob's unit. This revelation indicates that Jacob was bayoneted by one of his fellow soldiers when they began attacking each other.
Jacob returns to the apartment building where he once lived with Sarah. He looks through an old shoe box mementos of his time in the military, like his dog tags and a picture of Gabe, and is surprised to see Gabe at the foot of the stairwell. Gabe, whose name alludes to Gabriel, takes Jacob by the hand and together the two of them ascend the stairwell and disappear into a bright light. The dénouement reveals that Jacob fought in Vietnam, but he did not survive. At the moment of death, his body lies in an Army triage tent, with an expression of peace on his face.
- Tim Robbins as Jacob "Professor" Singer
- Elizabeth Peña as Jezebel "Jezzie" Pipkin
- Danny Aiello as Louis Denardo
- Matt Craven as Michael Newman
- Pruitt Taylor Vince as Paul
- Jason Alexander as Mr. Geary, the lawyer
- Patricia Kalember as Sarah
- Eriq La Salle as Frank
- Ving Rhames as George
- Brian Tarantina as Doug
- Anthony Alessandro as Rod
- Brent Hinkley as Jerry
- S. Epatha Merkerson as Elsa
- Kyle Gass as Tony
- Lewis Black as Jacob's doctor
- Perry Lang as Jacob's assailant
- Macaulay Culkin (uncredited) as Gabe Singer
The film's title refers to the biblical story of Jacob's Ladder, or the dream of a meeting place between Heaven and Earth (Genesis 28:12). Its little-known alternate title is Dante's Inferno, in a reference to Inferno by Dante Alighieri. Screenwriter and co-producer Bruce Joel Rubin perceived the film as a modern interpretation of the Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State, the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Rubin said: "The inspiration in a sense is my entire spiritual upbringing. Once you have a meditative life you start to see that the world is really far different than what it appears to be. What appears to be finite is really couched in the infinite, and the infinite imbues everything in our lives." Before writing his scripts for Jacob's Ladder and Ghost, which too was released in 1990, the Jewish-born Rubin spent two years in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Nepal; previously, he has also written afterlife-themed Brainstorm and Deadly Friend. His original screenplay for Jacob's Ladder differs significantly at parts from the final film, especially towards the ending.
Rubin's work on Jacob's Ladder began in 1980, sparked by his nightmare in which he dreamt about being trapped in a subway. For several years, Rubin tried to sell the script, without success; Thom Mount of Universal Pictures said he "loved it, but it was not for his studio". Directors Michael Apted, Sidney Lumet and Ridley Scott all expressed an interest in making the film, but still no major studio was ready to invest in Rubin's "too metaphysical" stories as "Hollywood does not make ghost movies". Eventually, after Deadly Friend was filmed by Wes Craven in 1986, Rubin's screenplays for both Jacob's Ladder and Ghost were picked by Paramount Pictures. In 1988, Adrian Lyne, who described Rubin's work as "certainly one of the best scripts I've ever read", decided then to direct it instead of an adaptation of The Bonfire of the Vanities as he had originally planned (incidentally, Tom Hanks, an actor originally considered by Lyne for the role of Jacob, ended up starring in Bonfire). The ownership and policy changes at Paramount resulted in the cancellation of the project; the executives had doubts about the film's ending and the scenes taking place in Vietnam. The independent film studio Carolco Pictures decided to take over the production of Jacob's Ladder, giving Lyne a greater creative control and a budget of $25 million. Rubin became the film's co-producer, along with Mario Kassar, Alan Marshall and Andrew G. Vajna.
Lyne, who downplayed Rubin's "intimidating" Old Testament themes, said that he prepared for making the film by watching "endless" documentary films about the war in Vietnam and reading "countless" chronicles of near-death experiences. The film's plot device of a long period of subjective time passing in an instant has been explored by several authors. A particularly strong inspiration for both Rubin and Lyne was Robert Enrico's 1962 short film An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, one of Lyne's favourite movies, which was in turn based on Ambrose Bierce's 1890 short story of the same name.
Hundreds of actors sought the main roles in the film, including Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman and Richard Gere for Jacob, and Andie MacDowell, Julia Roberts and Madonna for Jezzie. Eventually, Tim Robbins and Elizabeth Peña were cast; both auditioned early and neither of them had starred in a feature film before. Robbins said the film presented for him "a great opportunity to go in a different direction. I love doing comedy, but I know I can do other things as well." The film's military advisor was Vietnam veteran Captain Dale Dye, who provided a five-day boot camp military training for the actors playing soldiers in the Vietnam storyline (including Robbins, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Eriq La Salle and Ving Rhames).
All of the film's special effect sequences were filmed in camera, with no use of post production effects. In several scenes of Jacob's Ladder, Lyne used a body horror technique in which an actor is recorded waving his head around at a low frame rate, resulting in horrifically fast motion when played back. In the Special Edition's commentary track, Lyne said he was inspired by the art of the painter Francis Bacon when developing the effect. In his screenplay, Rubin used traditional imagery of demons and hell. However, Lyne decided to use images similar to thalidomide deformities to achieve a greater shock effect. After many heated arguments, Lyne managed to convert Rubin to his vision. Lyne and Rubin used the works of the artist H. R. Giger and the photographers Diane Arbus and Joel-Peter Witkin for inspiration; another influence came from the Brothers Quay's 1986 stop motion short film Street of Crocodiles.
In the film, Jacob is told by Michael that the horrific events he experienced on his final day in Vietnam were the product of an experimental drug called "the Ladder", which was used on troops without their knowledge. At the end of the film, a message is displayed saying that reports of testing of BZ, NATO code for a deliriant and hallucinogen known as 3-quinuclidinyl benzilate, on U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War were denied by the Pentagon. Lyne said a part of the inspiration for this motif was Martin A. Lee's book Acid Dreams: The CIA, LSD and Sixties Rebellion, but noted that "nothing in the book suggests that the drug BZ — a super-hallucinogen that has a tendency to elicit maniac behavior — was used on U.S. troops." The war scenes were filmed in Puerto Rico, in the area of Vega Baja, and the UH-1 helicopters were provided by the Puerto Rico National Guard.
According to Lyne's audio commentary, test screenings indicated that the initial version of the film was overwhelming for the audience. In response, about 20 minutes of disturbing scenes, mostly from the last third of the film, were removed from the final cut.
Jacob's Ladder opened on November 2, 1990, distributed by TriStar Pictures. Jacob's Ladder: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack with the music by Maurice Jarre was released by Varèse Sarabande in 1993. Rubin's companion book, released by Applause Theater Book Publishers on the same day as the film, features a final draft of the screenplay, including the deleted scenes, and his essay on making of the screenplay and the film.
The Special Edition DVD was released by Artisan Entertainment on July 14, 1998, containing three deleted scenes ("Jezzie's Transformation", "The Antidote" and "The Train Station") along with several other special features, such as audio commentary by Adrian Lyne and a 26-minute making-of documentary "Building Jacob's Ladder". On September 14, 2010, the film was released on Blu-ray Disc by Lions Gate Entertainment and retains all of the special features of the DVD version, along with two trailers, omitting only a TV spot that came with the DVD.
The film took the number one spot at the weekend box office in North America, garnering ticket sales of $7.5 million from 1,052 screens. However, the attendance dropped fast and its overall domestic box office result was only $26,118,851.
According to aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, 69% of reviews of the film were positive based on 61 reviews. Roger Ebert of Chicago Sun-Times wrote that watching it left him "reeling with turmoil and confusion, with feelings of sadness and despair," and called it "thoroughly painful and depressing experience - but, it must be said, one that has been powerfully written, directed and acted." Janet Maslin of The New York Times wrote that this "slick, riveting, viscerally scary film about what in other hands would be a decidedly unsalable subject, namely death," is "both quaint and devastating." However, Desson Thomson of The Washington Post felt disappointed with the film that is "ultimately flat on its surrealistic face, the victim of too many fake-art sequences." Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly wrote that "Jacob's Ladder is so 'dark' it sucks Robbins right down with it. By the time Jacob is being strapped to a bed and wheeled down a hospital corridor strewn with bloody limbs, it's hard to care whether the Orwellian image is a hallucination or not. You just want out." Kim Newman called the film "effectively the blunt remake" of Carnival of Souls.
According to IGN's review of the DVD release in 2004, "After movies like Se7en, it may not pack the same subtle horror for today's audiences it did when it was first released, but it's still a great film." IGN's review of Jacob's Ladder 's 2010 Blu-ray release called it is "an emotionally poignant, creepy horror masterpiece." According to Slant Magazine, Jacob's Ladder is "a bizarrely cohesive hybrid of war movie, character study, art film, and horror flick" and "the very act of watching the film is so emotionally draining that the viewer leaves the film feeling worked-in; the thought of repeat viewings is daunting yet insatiable." In 2011, John Kenneth Muir called the film's nightmarish hospital scene "one of the most terrifying moments in all of 1990s horror cinema." Muir further wrote: "In its musings about death, about the end we all fear, Jacob's Ladder proves a deeply affecting and meaningful motion picture. After a screening, you'll immediately want to hug the people you love and then go outside and breathe the fresh air, or otherwise affirm your very existence."
Back in 1983, the film's screenplay was included on the list of "Hollywood's ten best unproduced screenplays" by American Film magazine. In 1991, Jacob's Ladder was nominated at Horror Hall of Fame II for best horror film, losing to The Silence of the Lambs. The film was also featured in Bravo's 2004 documentary miniseries The 100 Scariest Movie Moments and in the 2009 book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. In 2012, Total Film ranked it as the 31st best independent horror film of all time. That same year, the film's elements were included on the list of top ten scariest movie demons by CraveOnline and ranked as the 19th best movie plot twist by Complex; similarly, it was also included on the 2013 list of 20 shocking movie plot twists by Digital Spy. In 2013, Slate ranked it as the 146th greatest horror film of all time, the Jacob Burns Film Center Projectionist Andrew Robinson chose it as his favourite scary movie, and IGN's Lucy O'Brien wrote a feature article about this "brilliant" film, where she called it "the movie every survival horror fan should watch".
It was officially acknowledged that Jacob's Ladder greatly inspired the horror fiction franchise Silent Hill, including the video games Silent Hill (1999), Silent Hill 2 (2001), Silent Hill 3 (2003) and Silent Hill: Homecoming (2007), as well as the series' 2006 film adaptation by Christophe Gans. Kim Manners prepared for directing The X-Files episode "Grotesque" by listening to the music from Jacob's Ladder. The film's influence on their works was recognised by Ryan Murphy, writer of the 2011 TV series American Horror Story: Asylum, and Shinji Mikami, director of the video game The Evil Within. Jacob's Ladder as a film is directly referenced in Silent Hill 3, as well as in the 2002 The Twilight Zone episode "Night Route", the 2005 film Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and the 2010 The Simpsons episode "The Squirt and the Whale".
In 1991, Claytown Troupe used a sample of Newman's quote "It's a fast trip..." at the beginning of the track "Rainbow's Edge" in their album Out There. The band UNKLE sampled dialogue from the film in their 1998 song "Rabbit In Your Headlights" and again in 2003 in the song "Inside". VNV Nation's track "Forsaken" from the 1998 album Praise the Fallen ends with the quotation from Eckhart, while "Devils" from IVardensphere's 2011 album APOK begins with the same quotation; a sample of Jacob's yell "Stop it, you're killing me!" is used in the song "Next in Line" in Nevermore's 1996 album The Politics of Ecstasy. The music video for the 2010 song "Nightmare" by Avenged Sevenfold is a homage to the famous hospital scene from the film, chosen because the band's deceased drummer The Rev was a fan of the film. One of the directors of Linkin Park's music video "Papercut" stated that "some inspiration for the video was taken from the film "Jacob's Ladder", especially with the twitching blue man in one of the rooms of the house".
Scholars have seen the film's influence in works ranging from M. Night Shyamalan's 1999 hit psychological horror film The Sixth Sense to Peter Arnett's controversial 1998 CNN report "Valley of Death" about the Vietnam War's 1970 Operation Tailwind. Jeff Millar of Houston Chronicle wrote that Giuseppe Tornatore's 1994 psychological thriller A Pure Formality uses the plot device of Jacob's Ladder mixed with several other sources. According to Premiere, Massy Tadjedin's 2005 psychological thriller The Jacket "is a film for those who don't remember Jacob's Ladder, perhaps for someone like Jacob himself," as it "resembles Jacob's Ladder too much for its own good." PopMatters called Michael Hurst's 2006 horror film Room 6 a "Jacob’s Ladder lift". Adam Gierasch's 2014 horror film Fractured was "described as a classic film noir with a Jacob's Ladder-like vibe."
Jeff Buhler (The Midnight Meat Train) was reported as writing a script for LD Entertainment's new version of Jacob's Ladder, which is based on an earlier draft by Jake Wade Wall. According to The Hollywood Reporter, "the producers are looking to make something more akin to an homage and not mimic the original. The plan is to contemporize the story with new situations and characters but still maintain a story that examines issues and poses existential questions." James Foley has been attached to direct the project.
Buhler said that since, due to two recent wars, the American "cultural understanding of the experience of warfare and what it does to people mentally" has become "a completely different place than it was" in 1990, he decided to not be "necessarily going to the same conclusion, and finding a new way to give the audience an experience that is similar in terms of impact and feeling, but that doesn’t play the same tune. It was a very tricky situation in the sense that we were trying to recreate something, but honor the spirit and concept (of the original), while telling a different story."
- Conspiracy fiction and paranoid fiction
- List of anti-war films
- List of films featuring hallucinogens
- List of nonlinear narrative films
- Unethical human experimentation in the United States
- Vietnam War in film
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