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The Profound Schlock of Adrian Lyne’s ‘Jacob’s Ladder’

With an unpromising remake imminent, let’s look back on the shocking, fascinating Tim Robbins original, one of the most fascinating movies of the 1990s

TriStar Pictures/Ringer illustration

In a New York Times article published October 28, 1990, screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin explained that his 10-year-old script for Jacob’s Ladder had sparked the interest of only “‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ types calling [him] and saying, ‘I can make this on the cheap.’” This wasn’t the approach that the spiritually minded writer of the romantic dramas like Ghost had in mind: “I thought I was better off having one of the 10 best unproduced screenplays and leaving it on the shelf.”

Fortunately for Rubin, a more expensive and artistic filmmaker eventually signed up for the task of filming the writer’s horrifying vision of the liminal state between life and death: British director Adrian Lyne, hot off the successes of the hit erotic thrillers 9 ½ Weeks and Fatal Attraction, gave up adapting Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities to climb up on Jacob’s Ladder.

Sometimes, however, the nightmare persists and becomes a reality, even if decades later. Almost 30 years after the release of the original, what looks to be a much sillier, cheaper, and unnecessary remake of Jacob’s Ladder is slated for release. Announced in 2013, shot in 2016, but only finally purchased in May by the same distribution company that rescued the troubled productions Where Hands Touch and Gotti, David M. Rosenthal’s Jacob’s Ladder updates Rubin’s Vietnam for Afghanistan and adds a brand new central character in the person of Jacob’s brother, whose narrative function the trailer fails to make clear. In our remake-intensive era, we would have been better off leaving the original film’s VHS on the shelf. Unless we’re taking it down to watch the film again.

If a pointless remake (the main imperative for it is to hand the story over to an all-black cast, but that also feels like a rather lazy attempt at updated social commentary) is a depressing proposition, it is also an opportunity to return to Lyne’s unique, influential, and still puzzling film. Why exactly has that first iteration transcended what could have been (and may soon be, in the remake) a schlocky and grotesque one-off? After all, it isn’t a coincidence that Rubin’s script collected dust for a decade, and Lyne’s adaptation was not a resounding success at the time, only recouping its budget. If Jacob’s Ladder has remained in the collective imagination, it isn’t for obvious reasons. It was never an easy proposition.

In Lyne’s 1990 film, Tim Robbins plays Jacob Singer, an affable postal worker living in New York with his sexy girlfriend and coworker Jezzie (short for Jezebel), played by Elizabeth Peña. It soon becomes clear that Jacob had a different life once, with a wife named Sarah (Patricia Kalember) and three children, although one of them, Gabe (Macaulay Culkin), died tragically. But before all of this is established, Jacob’s Ladder opens on a very different scene: a U.S. military camp in Vietnam, where Jacob and his fellow soldiers are relaxing, joking casually while waiting for action. Suddenly, action comes and a strange panic ensues: As they are getting shot at, some of Jacob’s mates begin convulsing violently, foaming at the mouth, and collapsing, without anyone understanding why. Before the spectator can see how the battle and the bizarre seizures end, Jacob is seen getting stabbed with a bayonet by an invisible assailant, then waking up: Alone in a mostly deserted New York subway, he had fallen asleep and dreamt about his war experience. On top of his divorce and his grief for his son, Jacob seems to be in the thrall of PTSD, his mind unable to process the violence he witnessed in Vietnam and twisting the facts into nightmarish fantasies of viruses and violent physical transformations. Already, this is a lot of heavy emotional baggage for the protagonist of any film, let alone a Hollywood production from the man who brought you the term “bunny boiler” and an uncomplicated (albeit very good) strip-tease scene set to Joe Cocker’s “You Can Leave Your Hat On.”

Tim Golden explained in his article that Lyne was at the time considered by critics to be “a high priest of film style, low on substance,” and a story of psychological damage such as Jacob’s Ladder might have seemed like a strange fit. Yet from the film’s opening sequence in the sinister subway, it is evident that Lyne is interested, specifically, in how Jacob lives with his pain—how he experiences it not only in his mind, but also in his body. The very fact that the real horror of Vietnam for Jacob (and Lyne) seems to be not the armed conflict itself but instead his friends’ sudden and inexplicable strokes reveals how sensory his memories are: He recalls this fateful day as a troubling neurological experience. After he awakens, Jacob realizes that he may have missed his stop and asks an old woman for help, but she only looks at him blandly—an unnerving moment, but the subway in the small hours is typically populated with such odd characters. More disturbing is what Jacob glimpses crawling under the blanket of a homeless person sleeping on the train, just before jumping off: a tentacle moving slowly up the sleeper’s legs. The nightmare may have been interrupted, but now reality appears to be full of strange bodies too. Jacob’s anxiety is very much both a lived-in and a living thing.

Erotic thrillers were a good training ground for Lyne to direct a body-horror movie. His taste for the pleasures and dangers of the senses made 9 ½ Weeks transcend its condition as a rather simple story of toxic romance between a gullible woman and an arrogant, needy, devilishly sexy man. The helpless attraction that Elizabeth (Kim Basinger) feels toward John (Mickey Rourke) could seem silly, and in some ways it is, but Lyne understands that the locus of his story is in the physical chemistry and tension between these people, rather than in any rational, intellectual connection. In Fatal Attraction, it is a man, Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas), who gets caught up in his bodily desire for control, combating his sense of emasculation (because his wife is modern and independent!) with a steamy affair; unfortunately for him, his mistress, Alex Forrest (Glenn Close), believes that the word and the deed go hand in hand, and refuses to be just a disposable object to him. To force Dan not to ignore her, Alex manipulates her own body—by claiming she is pregnant, then by cutting her wrists—before turning to that of her lover with a knife, and Lyne does not shy away from the visceral horror of these attacks. There again, the emotional arc of the film appears through haptics, from the sexual encounter to the final violent altercation.

Jacob’s Ladder, however, is not an erotic thriller. The bodies here are foreign, repulsive, and perhaps not even human—allowing Lyne to take his fascination with flesh further into morbid territory. For what Jacob first takes as a trick of the light and a sign of fatigue on the subway soon returns and becomes too tangible to be dismissed: Creatures and physical deformities keep appearing around him. A nurse seems to have a strange growth on her head; at a party, he finds what looks like a rotting cow skull in the fridge; and although all these disturbing things appear furtively at first, they progressively take up more and more physical space. There seems to be no way for Jacob to be the only person experiencing visions, and yet no one else appears to notice them. Later, Jacob joins Jezzie on the dance floor and catches a glimpse of a couple making out intensely on a couch. After some awkward dancing, Jacob moves away and lets Jezzie dance with another man. Looking over at the couple kissing again, they seem to be going way too far for such a public setting. While the funky music of the party keeps playing, Lyne begins to emphasize the closeness of the bodies around Jacob and presents him in tight close-ups. Returning toward Jezzie, he sees that the stranger dancing behind her is turning into a winged, Lovecraftian creature, wrapping itself around Jezzie as she gesticulates more and more aggressively and ecstatically, taking off her skirt as it feels her up with a set of tentacles. Lyne uses all the visual elements at his disposition to make the violence of the scene ever more palpable: the sweat on Jezzie’s face reflects the flashing party lights, the darkness keeps Jacob (and the spectator) peering at her despite his repulsion to try to understand what he is seeing, and fast cutting heightens the tension. Finally, further pushing the reference to the similar intercourse between a woman and a disgusting creature in Andrzej Zulawski’s 1981 film Possession, Lyne takes the scene to a crisis point: The monster seems to impale Jezzie with some sort of gigantic fang, which sends Jacob into a full-blown panic attack. From the beginning of the scene, sex and horror are intermingled. Lyne makes the vulnerability of desire dangerous, an opening into the ghastliest turn of events. In several sequences, Jacob’s Ladder is an erotic horror film.

In a film of interior landscapes, Jacob’s body gives him a feeling of safety, anchoring him to physical reality. But—not coincidentally—it’s also a source of pain in itself. He regularly sees Louis (Danny Aiello), a friendly chiropractor who makes his back crack and stands above his patient in a halo of sunlight filtered through the window – the pain he causes Jacob is salutary, like a pinch to make sure he isn’t dreaming. But Lyne highlights the underlying anxiety that Jacob carries with him into his friend’s office by playing with the sounds and the rhythm of Louis’s manipulations; each creak is like a rip in the fabric of reality. Aiello brings his typically ambiguous persona to Louis, seeming gregarious one moment and menacing the next. Even when lying on his trusted doctor’s table, Jacob isn’t sure he can believe everything he feels in his bones.

It is this constant slippage into uncertainty that makes Jacob’s Ladder unique. Lyne’s focus on the sensual experiences of his character helps blur that line between dream and reality: The most vivid nightmares are the ones that leave you out of breath when you wake up, or unsure of your surroundings. Tactility is the key ingredient for a truly upsetting dream, and throughout the film, Jacob keeps his sense of touch even as he loses touch with reality. At the film’s midway point, he suddenly wakes up in bed with Sarah, his ex-wife, and tells her of his dream that he had separated from her and was living a different life with the woman from the post office. The scene is incredibly disorienting because it is so elongated and, again, imbued with a sense of physicality. Jacob and Sarah caress each other tenderly throughout his tale, eventually getting more sensual until their son (very much alive) joins them. But later, Jacob returns to Vietnam, and to his existence with Jezzie, which all seems just as material.

If these images of the war seem at first like classic flashbacks, their recurrence and the fact that they progress from the attack to Jacob’s being carried on a stretcher suggest that they may instead be another reality that Jacob visits. As he does in the Jezzie and Sarah dimensions, Lyne accentuates the intense, sensitive experience of war—with slow-motion, loud explosions, and a feverish editing style, but also by having the camera capturing these events from Jacob’s point of view. Vietnam is as much a physical as a mental memory—a scar. When Jacob inhabits Jezzie’s reality, this visceral trauma is confirmed: As it turns out, several of Jacob’s war companions have also been followed by strange creatures. Their horrific nightmares seem to be coming true as well, as though the repressed memories of violence were emerging in their daily lives. But realizing that they are not alone convinces them that they are not mistaken: After all, nightmares coming true have the same disorienting effect as conspiracy theories. In both cases, someone’s experience is being manipulated so as to seem illogical. The ex-soldiers justify the disruption of the laws of nature they see around them as the effects of a poison that the government gave them in Vietnam. The metaphor is potent: In 1990, American audiences were still sensitive about the fiasco of the Vietnam War and had just seen a plethora of films overtly critical of America’s presence overseas, from Platoon (1986) and Full Metal Jacket (1987) to Casualties of War (1989). The bad dream of this imperialist conflict had not yet faded from people’s memory.

For a film of that era, Jacob’s Ladder is more concerned with the bad dream itself than with its rational significance: Lyne steers clear of any comparisons with The Manchurian Candidate, the key “state-sponsored aggressivity poison” war film, by addressing the effects of war rather than its causes. Producer Alan Marshall (the man behind such sour delights as Basic Instinct and Hollow Man) plainly admitted that Vietnam “was a plot device rather than something we were trying to make a huge issue of.” As it goes on and further complicates its cross-stitch of family drama, warfare memories, and monstrous visions, Jacob’s Ladder takes on a more spiritual and existential meaning, in line with Rubin’s original intentions but perhaps not politically engaged enough for audiences at the time.

The film’s title refers to Jacob’s dream of a ladder leading up to heaven in the Bible, but Rubin’s Buddhist influences (he spent some time in a monastery in Nepal) also suggest the bardo, the in-between state between death and rebirth as presented in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Not quite dead yet, a man rehashes the key moments of his life through what made them real—namely his senses. So vivid are these memories that they can confuse him into thinking he is still alive, but for Jacob, they are also too awful to be accepted so easily. The bardo represents the sum total of a life on earth, and for some, its accumulated weight and the marks it leaves on the body can be too much to bear. Near the film’s end, Jacob finds himself in his family home and briefly sees Gabe in a mirror’s unclear reflection. But when he looks back, the little boy has been replaced by another terrifying figure shaking her head violently (inspired by Francis Bacon’s disturbing distorted portraits, this effect was achieved by having the camera shooting at a very low frame rate, so that the movement seemed incredibly fast when played back). This time, however, Jacob is more heartbroken than scared: In a touching bit of acting, Robbins drops his head into his hands, weeping and exhausted. He no longer wishes to run after the truest sensations; the chase has defeated him, he only wants it to end.

Suddenly, Gabe returns and takes his father by the hand. Together they walk up their house’s staircase into a soft sunlight. Having gone through the purgatory, Jacob has accepted to abandon his memories and his senses at last. Lyne cuts back to Vietnam, where two doctors are looking over Jacob and declare him dead (a twist indebted on a deeper level to Ambrose Bierce’s 1890 short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”). The final shot shows his body from afar, lying on a table while the nurses leave him behind. The effect is shockingly sad: This body, from which the spectator experienced the whole spectrum of sensations and a man’s entire life, is now inert, worn out like an old costume, useless—but at peace.

The contrast between this lifeless shell and the rich, tempestuous existence within it is far more distressing than the syrupy ending of Ghost, where death was not such a clean-cut ending. Jacob’s Ladder suggests that there is a liberation from trauma—be it familial or from armed conflict—in dying, and this spiritual but bleak idea may explain why Paramount abandoned the project despite Lyne having already made two successful movies for the studio. Carolco Pictures, which produced First Blood and Angel Heart and later went bankrupt after too many blockbuster flops, allowed the script to remain off the shelf back then. But today, after Jacob’s Ladder went through so much pain to come into being as one of the scariest, most depressing and exciting films of the 1990s, one wishes no studio had brought it back to such an unpleasant half-life.