Starring- Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Pena, Danny Aiello, Pruitt Taylor Vince
Think of this review as more of a retrospective type, as one of the many advantages of Dead By Dawn is to catch some classic films on the big screen, not ones that are about to be re-released or being screened in digital restorations, but ones that have been specially selected by festival organiser Adele Hartley. On the same day that closed with a superb double bill tribute screening to the late great Wes Craven in the form of NEW NIGHTMARE and HILLS HAVE EYES (both in 35mm as well) we started with a showing of Adrian Lyne’s superb and vastly underrated JACOB’S LADDER. A film that originally I heard bits about when it was originally released but only managed to see towards the end of the 90’s, very late one night on a video store rental copy. The first time I saw this film I was left with the experience of watching something full of unease, disturbing often shocking images, a nightmarish feel and quality that somehow by the end of it had a pleasant and if ironically hopeful somewhat happy ending.
Admittedly I’m not going to lie and say that there will be no spoilers in this review. So in though often used custom, here are the words SPOILERS AHEAD in big capitals cause there will be spoilers. Anyway the film has been out for 25 years so you have had good enough time, but in case you haven’t seen it go out and buy the film or rent it on you tube as its there. Then come back and read the review. But yes this review will have SPOILERS………………………………………. JACOB’S LADDER is in all intents and purposes a film about dying, a film about the experiences of death and the possibility’s of the after life. It’s deep material yes, but done in such a disturbing and unique way that both conjures fear, revulsion but our need to look on at the images we see no matter how unsettling they become. JACOB’S LADDER is essentially the final dying moments of Vietnam Veteran, Jacob Singer (Robbins) who is brutally wounded with a bayonet to the gut in the desperate moments after him and his platoon of fellow soldiers are attacked.
It’s not known whether they are attacked by the Viet Cong as an enemy is not depicted shooting at them, rather bombs drop down, rifle fire shoots out from the jungle and tears apart the soldiers, some of whom are too stoned on drugs to react and can only sit there dazed and confused and look on in horror. The film then cuts to Singer in New York, working as a postman, living with a new women in his life (Pena). However, he starts to experience strange and disturbing hallucinations, seeing almost demonic like figures on the subway train, almost being run over by a car which seemingly has passengers in the back whose heads spin in fast contorted horror. These hallucinations are superbly done, both effective and disturbing, even watching it in a crowd, some of whom had not seen the film, there was not a tendency to laugh at this, which can be the bane of many older horror films to a contemporary audience. No, the crowd sat in silence trying to take in the images that spring up on screen that spring an uncomfortable often jumpy experience in the viewer.
Admittedly the films narrative spins in and out between moments of Jacob in the jungle trying to hold onto life and being taken to an army field hospital to treat his wounds and into his narrative in New York where he soon starts to suspect that him and some of his fellow army friends where drugged or had something happen to them as they cannot recall much of the attack on his platoon. Narratively it’s best to leave the film to do the talking as it flashback and forward between Vietnam, into New York frequently and into another scene where Jacob is shown living the life of a normal man with a wife and kids, one of whom, Gabe, holds sad unfortunate memory’s for him as he was killed in a road accident which still haunts Jacob (incidentally this is played by Macaulay Culkin in a pre HOME ALONE role). These latter scenes are flashbacks (possibly) before Jacob went to the war and its possible to see the ever occurring reminders of Gabe’s death as a cause of Jacob seeing the horrifying visions that he sees. Maybe guilt is what is bringing these demons and maybe the journey in the dying moments is his chance to overcome his guilt and be at peace?
These scenes are done as to break up so fluently and distort the narrative arc of the film, to represent the slowly hallucinating and dying nature of Singer’s mindset. Jacob’s chiropractor Louis delivers a monologue to him that where he quotes 14th Century Mystic Meister Eckhart in that “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.” It’s a fantastic and brilliant scene that comes towards the latter part of the film and one of the few calmer moments in the horror.
Certainly JACOB’S LADDER handles the idea of death and final experiences of life in contrasting moments of horror and beauty and its one of the few films with a size-able budget (the films budget at the time was $25 million, a big money deal at that time for a complex genre film) that contains images of bizarre and hallucinatory nature as to exceed and go beyond the usual expectations of mainstream cinema and to lend itself a deep subtext throughout that is an uneasy experience. Its no surprise that its screenwriter, Bruce Joel Rubin, who had won an Oscar for blockbuster romantic drama GHOST, is interested in spirituality and meditation and that he spent two years in a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery in Nepal before writing the scripts for his award winner and JACOBS LADDER. Yet LADDER is Rubin’s counterpart/evil twin brother to GHOST, which had a syrupy sentimental view of love after death and did take more money at the box office ($500m worldwide or something daft) than Jacobs hallucinating nightmare.
Added to this you have British director Adrian Lyne who had already made a name for himself directing the flashy Erotically charged 9 ½ WEEKS and FATAL ATTRACTION who adds a superb look with a use of natural light and sets of New York streets that both remain as a reminder of the city’s once gritty and grimy past and also add an other worldly like feel that fits with our protagonists state of mind. It’s clear he was a commercial director before breaking into features and that’s noticeable in some scenes, yet his flashy style is a nice partner to the horror on display and this might be his best film. He also directs one fantastic nightmarish sequence, where after an accident Jacob is taken to a hospital and is then put on a stretcher taken down to a basement by silent orderlies and pulled through a derelict building corridor and then through an insane asylum which seems more like a vision of hell than anything else and ends up in an operating theatre surrounded by faceless surgeons. It’s a sequence that is both effective and brutal in its execution, with a complete focus on a nightmare feel that is unnerving.
It’s no surprise that the film has developed a cult following over time and has been an influence on popular culture such as the SILENT HILL video game series, which is evident with some of the faceless demon things in that game and AMERICAN HORROR STORY: ASYLUM. There are now plans to create a remake or re-imagining to quote that shit heap phrase banded around to hide that its initially a cover version of the original. Yet It will be hard to recreate the experience of this film again as its both a unique and often haunting film that equally will disturb and quite possibly frustrate those who haven’t seen it before. However, it remains a stand out film and a unique one at that. One sense of the effectiveness it had on the Dead By Dawn audience could be interpreted at the end of the credits.
Usually at a genre film festival its complimentary to give a round of applause to the film at the end. Here after the credits started, there was a hesitation from the audience? Was it people trying to take in the final image, the conclusion? Or where they trying to take a deep breath and come back to reality from the collective experience they had just been through?