Fearflix 13

Jacob’s Ladder

USA 1990


In the beginning there was a ladder between earth and heaven. Someone read Genesis and this inspired him or her to give the name to a climb in the Peak District in England. The American film has nothing to do with the walk in the Peak District and it deliberately misunderstands the biblical interpretation. The title also contains its own spoiler and this becomes apparent halfway through the film.

After Jacob’s Ladder was shown to a preview audience twenty minutes were cut from the film. Adrian Lyne is a director who is not known for restraint and good taste. He made 9½ Weeks and Fatal Attraction. On this occasion the distributors found an audience who had more sense than Lyne. The effect of the post-preview cutting was that Jacob’s Ladder emphasised philosophy rather than horror. The horror that does remain consists of disturbing visions within scenes that may or may not be hallucinations. The opening scene, which is set in the Vietnam War, is not well done. The scene, though, is short and, like the horror, it adds to the confusion and mystery. The horrific moments are not essential to understanding the film. It may have been this realisation and not the reaction of the preview audience that led to the film being cut by twenty minutes.


The film begins on a subway train. The man who rides alone is reading L’Étranger, the novel by Albert Camus. The themes of the novel are not present in Jacob’s Ladder. Yet the book is a deliberate choice by someone, the director Lyne or scriptwriter Bruce Joel Rubin. The title of the book exists in the film as a promise that what follows will have existential hints.  And so it does. But Camus is crystal clear in his ideas. His existential novel is provocative and incisive. Jacob’s Ladder is an interesting film and different but it suffers from both excess ambition and not enough. The ending of the movie is both existential and humanist. The author of L’Étranger based the novel on a man who was unable to cry at the funeral of his mother.   Camus would think the mix of opposing philosophies in Jacob’s Ladder amusing.

Few should be surprised by the final twist in the film. Before the end there is a line of dialogue from the fine actor Danny Aielio that is a giveaway. The ending may be flawed and a little cheap but it is an improvement on the climax of Fatal Attraction. Some will argue that the ending of the film is both poignant and disturbing.  Jacob’s Ladder has cult status.

For most of the film the audience is obliged to wonder what the hell is happening. No doubt this mitigated the commercial success anticipated by Lyne. The hero Jacob is either mad, a victim of demonic forces or suffering the after effects of Army administered drugs in Vietnam. Simultaneously, Jacob’s Ladder evokes A Beautiful Mind, Pi, The Manchurian Candidate and more than a few horror movies. Rubin wrote the script for Ghost as well as Jacob’s Ladder. Ghost made him money but Jacob’s Ladder reveals the concerns and fears of a scriptwriter obsessed with death. Ghost is simple and Jacob’s Ladder complicated but both assume mysteries require explanation. The resolution of the complicated plot of the latter is philosophical. After all the complexity the resolution has to be simple. This is not always the best way to approach philosophy. The ending is disturbing but the true horror of our destiny is sidestepped. The presence of a sweet-faced child is not only Lyne using pragmatic excess to manipulate an audience. It is also contradictory humanism and an unfounded attempt at consolation for gloomy Camus readers. If the ultimate horror cannot be conquered and it endures, as the film suggests, it will be grimmer than what is imagined by Adrian Lyne in Jacob’s Ladder.


American existentialism has a honourable tradition amongst the literary giants of that country. Norman Mailer is a notable example. In movies, existentialism has defined genres. This is not the same as genres and movies defining or explaining the philosophy. The existential classics from Hollywood are noir thrillers like Build My Gallows High, Detour and The Killers. Nobody mentions death in those movies because philosophical musing will only be an unwelcome brake on the narrative. A generation later, though, audiences realise that the references are not needed. We understand how death and time shape lives. Camus and Sartre were both big fans of American cinema because it was devoted to action and they believed action and not thoughts defined existence.   They were pleased to see their philosophy shape mass entertainment.

The philosophy behind Jacob’s Ladder may be crude and instructional but the film should be indulged. Some scenes are scary, and there are plenty of surprises. Not everything that is worthwhile in the movie is rooted in horror.   When Jacob attends a party, what follows is definitely unpleasant but prior to the hallucinations there is a simple palm reading scene that is memorable. The scene works because it has confident perspective. It makes obvious what is not often understood. Forget sex, palm reading is the most intimate interaction between two people.

Jacob is a divided man threatened by possible madness but the script does enough for us to think of Jacob symbolising a split American society. Bruce Joel Rubin wrote the script in 1980, ten years before production of the film began, and it alludes to the divisions and dark authoritarianism that existed in America during and after the Vietnam War. The film has a definite feel of the 70s. The city is not a war zone but it is threatening. The American hero is unsure about his fellow countrymen and women and their intentions. In this environment no one knows who is friend or foe. Tim Robbins, who plays Jacob, has a good earnest sixties face and he is perfect for the 70s paranoia that followed the idealism of the 60s.


More interesting than the philosophical ending is the relationship between individual identity and home. The film is preoccupied with how both define the other. The Vietnam veterans return to America changed by war but also to a home that is different and one that their new identity, as a constituent part of home, will redefine. All this will change them again. Inevitably identity crumbles. There is no evidence that Tony Blair saw Jacobs’s Ladder before he put on tight trousers and committed others to military adventures. Nor can we assume that if he had he would have realised that, whoever wins, only the defeated and broken victors remain. Home is referred to often in the movie. The intention is to offer an alternative philosophical definition of where we belong but the frequent references also strengthen the link to personal identity and the ease with which it can crumble in unfamiliar or unstable surroundings.


In its depiction of possible madness the film has to be compared to Pi and A Beautiful Mind. Adrian Lyne pitches the film somewhere between the two other movies. The madness of Jacob is not as sanitised as madness is in A Beautiful Mind but neither is Jacob as weird or as strange as the crazed Mac Cohen in Pi.  Jacob may not have the domestic fantasy that was somehow abandoned in Fatal Attraction but he manages to alternate between the normal and crazy with an ease that was not available to numbers obsessed Mac Cohen.


Although often guilty of excess, and he should avoid war movies, the director Lyne has ability. He can cope with challenges. In one scene Jacob is captured and imprisoned in a moving car. This has been done before but Lyne manages to give it a fresh twist. Staging the scene would have been difficult, and Lyne deserves praise for bringing it to the screen. After the criticism of Fatal Attraction and the harsh judgement of the male perspective in that film Lyne may have wanted to make a movie that would be beyond criticism. In Jacob’s Ladder Mexican actress Elizabeth Peña plays an ethnic alternative to the wife of Jacob. Peña is called Jezebel and obliged to undress and be sexual. His American wife remains fully clothed and is adorned with cute children. But the film has weird elements, and no one can make assumptions about anything or anyone. All that we see may only represent the imagination of Jacob. This is cute and clever but, as Mohammed Ali once said, ‘you can run but you can’t hide’. The cuteness is exposed as limitations by the flawed ending.

The music is composed by Maurice Jarre. His finest moment was the impressive score for Lawrence Of Arabia. On Jacob’s Ladder Jarre mixes the orchestral and the electronic. Be it a violin or synthesizer the music is sweet and nothing new. The music is not too much of a distraction. There are irritants in Jacob’s Ladder but the film is a more than decent attempt at something different, and any movie that offers a heroic and tough chiropractor as a key character is worth attention. Danny Aielio cracks bones and enjoys himself. He is entitled, and, if horror does await us, so are we.

Howard Jackson has had four books published by Red Rattle Books. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and other great titles, click here.