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|
|Music by||Maurice Jarre|
|Cinematography||Jeffrey L. Kimball|
|Editing by||Tom Rolf|
|Distributed by||TriStar Pictures
Lions Gate Entertainment
|Running time||116 minutes|
Jacob's Ladder is a 1990 American horror film written by Bruce Joel Rubin, directed by Adrian Lyne and starring Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Peña and Danny Aiello. The story centers around Vietnam veteran Jacob Singer, whose experiences both prior to and during the war have resulted in strange flashbacks and bizarre hallucinations that continue to haunt him in his everyday life.
Made by an independent film company Carolco Pictures ten years after being written by Rubin, Jacob's Ladder 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 a number of other works, notably the horror media franchise Silent Hill.
The story begins on October 6, 1971, when Jacob Singer is an infantryman with the 1st Air Cavalry Division, deployed in a village in the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam War. Suddenly, his unit comes under heavy fire from the treeline and many of Jacob's comrades are killed and wounded. Soldiers around also begin to exhibit very abnormal behavior, some even going catatonic or 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 attacker.
In 1975, Jacob wakes up in the New York City Subway, dressed as a postal worker and with a copy of The Stranger in his hands. After Jacob finds himself locked in the underground 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 with a postal clerk woman named Jezzie in Brooklyn. He experiences grotesque hallucinations, apparently suffering from a severe case of posttraumatic stress disorder, and faces more direct threats to his life.
|“||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."||”|
As the hallucinations become increasingly bizarre, Paul, one of Jacob's old Army friends, contacts him to tell him about sharing such experiences. Paul is later killed when his car explodes. After the funeral, his surviving platoon-mates confess to Jacob they too have been seeing horrible hallucinations. They 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 then backs out, saying he has found that they were never even in Vietnam as they were all discharged during wargame training in Thailand. Jacob's platoon mates also abandon the idea. Jacob himself is briefly kidnapped by apparent government agents trying to silence him.
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 taking place in Vietnam). Michael claims to have been a chemist working 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 insinuates that Jacob was bayoneted by one of his fellow soldiers that, instead of targeting the enemy, attacked each other.
The last scenes have Jacob returning to the apartment building he once lived in with Sarah. He enters and begins looking through an old shoe box, containing his memories and the pain he has been clinging to, things like his dog tags and a picture of Gabe. Jacob then is surprised to see Gabe at the foot of the stairwell. Gabe takes Jacob by the hand and together the two of them ascend the stairwell and disappear into a bright light. At the dénouement, we learn Jacob never made it out of Vietnam; his body is shown in an Army triage tent just after he expired, with a now peaceful look on his face. It turns out that the entire series of events was an elaborate dying hallucination experienced by a mortally wounded Jacob during his final moments.
- Tim Robbins as Jacob Singer ("Professor" in Vietnam)
- 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 this film). However, after the ownership and policy changes at Paramount resulted in the cancelation of the project due to the executives' doubts about the film's ending and the scenes taking place in Vietnam. At that point, 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, the casting ended with the choosing of Tim Robbins and Elizabeth Peña, who both auditioned early and neither of them have 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 and Vietnam veteran, Captain Dale Dye, 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, Ving Rhames and Brent Hinkley).
All of the film's special effect sequences were filmed on-camera, with no use of visual 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 horrific fast motion when played back. In a 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 originally used traditional imagery for the visions of demons and hell. However, Lyne decided to instead use images similar to thalidomide scandal deformities to achieve a greater shock effect. Eventually, after many heated arguments, Lyne managed to persuade the initially unconvinced Rubin to his idea. Looking for inspirations, Lyne and Rubin used the works of the artist H.R. Giger and the photographers Diane Arbus and Joel-Peter Witkin; 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."
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 deleted from the final cut. 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.
Jacob's Ladder opened on November 2, 1990, distributed by TriStar Pictures. 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. Its overall domestic box office result was $26,118,851.
Critical reception 
According to aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, 70% of reviews of the film were positive. Roger Ebert of Chicago Sun-Times 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 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 list of 20 shocking movie plot twists by Digital Spy in 2013.
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. Ryan Murphy recognised the film's influence on his 2011 TV series American Horror Story: Asylum. 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 Michael Newman's (Matt Craven) 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.
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".
Home media 
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 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.
See also 
- Angel Heart, Brazil, Dead End, Deathdream, Donnie Darko, Enter the Void, The I Inside, Johnny Got His Gun, Open Your Eyes, Passengers, The Others, The Seventh Seal, Soul Survivors, Stay, Sublime, Vanilla Sky
- Conspiracy fiction and paranoid fiction
- Unethical human experimentation in the United States
- Time Golden, Up 'Jacob's Ladder' And Into the Hell Of a Veteran's Psyche, The New York Times, October 28, 1990
- Jacob's Ladder at Box Office Mojo
- Paul Meehan, Horror Noir: Where Cinema's Dark Sisters Meet, McFarland, 2011 (p.259)
- John Flowers, Paul Frizler, Psychotherapists on Film, 1899-1999: A Worldwide Guide to Over 5000 Films, Volume 1, McFarland, 2004 (p.309)
- Pamela Jaye Smith, Inner Drives, Michael Wiese Productions, 2005 (p.217)
- Eric G. Wilson, Secret Cinema: Gnostic Vision in Film, Bloomsbury, 2006 (p.123)
- Hartl, John (1990-11-01). "Adrian Lyne Met A Metaphysical Challenge". The Seattle Times. Retrieved 2010-02-06.
- Golden, Tim (1990-10-28). "FILM; Up 'Jacob's Ladder' And Into the Hell Of a Veteran's Psyche". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-10-22.
- Tricycle: The Buddhist Review - Volume 1, Buddhist Ray, 1991 (p.77)
- Carrol Lee Fry, Cinema of the Occult: New Age, Satanism, Wicca, and Spiritualism in Film, Associated University Presse, 2008 (p.77)
- Alex Raynor (Russia). "Jacob's Ladder (1990) movie script - Screenplays for You". Sfy.ru. Retrieved 2012-06-18.
- Tom Ruffles, Ghost Images: Cinema of the Afterlife, McFarland, 2004 (p.192)
- Bruce Joel Rubin, Jacob's Ladder, Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 1990
- Almar Haflidason, Dale Dye: Part 2 - Stop Whining at Me!, BBC, October 2003
- "Jacob's Ladder". Widerscreenings.com. Retrieved 2012-06-18.
- Jacob's Ladder | Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Album | Yahoo! Music
- 'Jacob's Ladder' Climbs to Top of Ticket Sales. - Los Angeles Times
- "Jacob's Ladder (1990)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2010-04-16.
- Ebert, Roger (1990-11-02). "Jacob's Ladder". Rogerebert.suntimes.com. Retrieved 2010-04-16.
- Janet Maslin, Movie Review - Jacob s Ladder - Review/Film; It's Scary, Yes, and Death Has a Role, The New York Times, November 2, 1990
- Desson Howe, 'Jacob's Ladder' (R), Washington Post, November 02, 1990
- Owen Gleiberman, Jacob's Ladder (1990), EW.com, Nov 02, 1990
- Mike Drucker, Jacob's Ladder: The living nightmare of a movie has a pretty decent DVD., IGN, November 8, 2004
- R.L. Shaffer, Jacob's Ladder Blu-ray Review, IGN, September 14, 2010
- Jacob's Ladder | DVD Review | Slant Magazine
- John Kenneth Muir, Horror Films of the 1990s, McFarland, 2011 (p.105)
- The 100 Scariest Movie Moments: 100 Scariest Moments in Movie History - Official Bravo TV Site
- 50 Greatest Indie Horror Film | TotalFilm.com
- The Top Ten Scariest Movie Demons | CraveOnline
- Spoiler Alert! The 50 Best Movie Twists | Complex
- Jacob's Ladder - 20 shocking movie plot twists - Digital Spy
- John Gaudiosi, Resident Evil And Silent Hill Producer Samuel Hadida Talks Wolfenstein And Onimusha Movies, Forbes, 11/02/2012
- Bernard Perron, Silent Hill: The Terror Engine, University of Michigan Press, 2012 (p. 55-56)
- Interview with Silent Hill 2's Artist Takayoshi Sato, IGN, August 17, 2001
- Silent Hill 3 Interview, IGN, June 12, 2002
- Grayson, Vincent. "Silent Hill 5 Interview: Jason's Philosophy, Jacob's Ladder, and Pyramid Head". Shacknews.com. Retrieved 2012-06-18.
- "Interview Silent Hill: Director Christophe Gans". Bloody Disgusting. Retrieved 2012-06-18.[dead link]
- Brian Lowry, The Truth is Out There: The Official Guide to the X-Files, Harper Prism, 1995 (p.158)
- Jessica Lange Sings 'The Name Game': 'American Horror Story: Asylum' Goes Musical, HUFFPOST TV, 01/03/2013
- Behind the Many Mysteries of Silent Hill from 1UP.com
- Charles Derry, Dark Dreams 2.0: A Psychological History of the Modern Horror Film from the 1950s to the 21st Century, McFarland, 2009 (p.223)
- Jerry Lembcke, CNN's Tailwind Tale: Inside Vietnam's Last Great Myth, Rowman & Littlefield, 2003 (p.77)
- Jeff Millar, `Pure Formality' so pretentious is hurts, Houston Chronicle, 10/06/1995
- Brian W. Fairbanks, I Saw That Movie, Too: Selected Film Reviews, 2005 (p.201)
- Bill Gibron, Room 6, PopMatters, 8 August 2006
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