Autumn Classics: Jacob’s Ladder

The paranoid, surreal tragedy turns 30.

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Autumn Classics: <i>Jacob&#8217;s Ladder</i>

As the gentle wind beckons through the leaves and autumn colors fall, many movie fans like to return to the spooky, macabre or melancholy films that evoke the feeling of the season. Ken Lowe is revisiting these Autumn Classics throughout the month of October. You can read up on all past entries here.

At the bottom of the steps she stands waiting, with a smile of ineffable joy, an attitude of matchless grace and dignity. Ah, how beautiful she is! He springs forward with extended arms. As he is about to clasp her he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck; a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon—then all is darkness and silence! —“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” by Ambrose Bierce

The folly and waste of the Vietnam War are beginning to pass out of memory, and with them the brand of conspiracy thriller rooted in the paranoia and distrust of the post-Nixon era. People compared Captain America: The Winter Soldier to that sort of thing, but it sort of doesn’t count if the conspiracy is “An off-brand undead Nazi living on through miles of magnetic tape using flying fortresses to shoot lasers.” Conspiracies, surveillance, burying the truth through abduction and murder, and mind-altering drugs are much more like it.

Jacob’s Ladder very much has that exact sort of ’70s-style paranoia embedded in its DNA, strangely out of place considering it came out in 1990. Stranger still is the streak of gory, uncanny, aggressive grotesquerie it employs to shock and frighten the audience in ways that have nothing at all to do with shady government bag-men or drug-fueled conspiracies. It’s an imperfect film with plot points and characters that fizzle out or vanish, one whose precise ending director Adrian Lyne didn’t seem sure of—two alternate endings, one of them involving elaborate and truly unpleasant practical effects, were filmed and aren’t even close to the one that made it to theaters.

It’s also luridly unforgettable.

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Jezzie: Creatures? Jake, New York is filled with creatures.

The movie is framed by scenes of a medical chopper evacuating Vietnam veteran Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins). In his past, Jake remembers a harrowing attack in Vietnam that cut down his platoon and wounded him. In the gray, perpetually chilly New York City of the present, he is estranged from his wife and children and reeling from the death of his son (an uncredited Macaulay Culkin). Living with a coworker, Jezzie (Elizabeth Peña), Jake struggles to get through each day, persistently haunted by disturbing images and a city that seems to be out to get him.

One of the most unsettling aspects of the movie is Lyne’s masterful transition between the mundane grittiness of ’70s New York and the sudden turns into surrealist horror. In each case it builds slowly at first, introducing off-putting but plausible elements right up until the moment when reality goes out to lunch entirely. In such scenes, the viewer ends up feeling like a frog who hasn’t realized the pot of water is getting hotter until the moment it reaches a boil. Frogs don’t actually do that, but neither do humans do this:

In one early scene, Jake discovers he’s fallen asleep on the subway—it happens when you’re reading Camus). He shares the car with a mute old woman who won’t answer his polite questions about where exactly he is or whether he’s missed his stop. The interior of the train is clogged with litter. It is no more surreal than any other ride on public transit in the dead of night in an uncaring megalopolis, and neither is the chained-over stairway that traps Jake underground. In desperation he decides to cross the tracks to reach the opposite platform’s exit, only to nearly be run down by a train filled with ghoulish not-quite-human creatures.

Where, you rightly wonder, does the madness of the world end and Jake’s own madness begin?

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Jake: Get me out of here!
Doctor: There is no “here.”

The really insidious part of Jacob’s Ladder is that it briefly toys with the idea of these nightmarish occurrences making sense. As these seeming hallucinations mount, Jake’s Army friend reaches out to him with stories of similar demonic visions before dying in a car bombing. An entire subplot revolves around Jake reconnecting with his old unit during the funeral and trying to discover whether they were experimented on during their time at war. Jake is even approached by a doctor who claims Jake’s unit was the subject of a kind of rage-inducing serum that has messed up his brain chemistry—a drug dubbed “The Ladder.”

This is not what is happening. As he attempts to return to his old home, to some place of safety, Jacob encounters his slain son one last time, and the boy leads him off into the light. Jake never left Vietnam. It’s shot in such a way that it can’t possibly be intended as metaphorical, but on repeat viewings it’s become harder and harder for me not to try to read it that way. A young man—a scientist and family man—goes off to war, has his brain written over with violence, and on returning home finds he can’t cope in a crumbling society where his every perception has been distorted by what’s been done to him.

The degree of detail, and the naturalistic feel of it all, boggles the mind, if this is just a dying man’s momentary reverie. But the clues arguing in favor of it are just too numerous. A drunk woman at a party reads Jake’s palms for fun and tells him he ought to already be dead. His chiropractor (Danny Aiello) waxes on about how hell’s demons are really sent to burn away the parts of us we can’t leave behind—so aren’t they really angels?

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While it’s tough to really find another movie that’s taken inspiration from Jacob’s Ladder, video games absolutely have. Konami’s Silent Hill series creators have acknowledged the influence, and it’s easy to see where it comes into play. The “bad” ending of the series’ first game shows that the protagonist, who gets in a car accident at the beginning of the game, actually didn’t survive it. In the third game, the player character finds herself at the chained-up “Bergen Street” subway station, named for the one where Jake’s hallucination occurs. The unsettling, uncannily fast-moving body spasms in Jacob’s Ladder are mimicked by all manner of bizarre and grotesque enemies in the Silent Hill series. That series, too, had its share of internal contradictions, of the very same sort that can at times make Jacob’s Ladder a frustrating film, but in a way that feels experimental.

But what makes it an autumn movie, besides the visible breath of its New Yorkers, all bundled up beneath a gray sky? Autumn is a time of transition, when the world itself undergoes a change that is gradual, but omnipresent and inexorable. For many people who can’t help but view it as a harbinger of the fast-approaching winter, there’s that edge of uneasy anticipation. Jacob’s Ladder is a movie that takes great care in that creeping feeling of gradual change. It lives in those in-between spaces, right up until the alarming moments when it becomes some other creature entirely.


Kenneth Lowe is a regular contributor to Paste Movies. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog. Be sure to join him for the next installment of Autumn Classics as he revisits Misery (1990).

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