In The Desert Of Seth

By G. B. Marian

Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

The original 1990 poster for Jacob’s Ladder

Jacob Singer (played brilliantly by Tim Robbins) is a soldier in the Vietnam War whose platoon is suddenly attacked by someone (or something). Several years later, Jacob works as a U.S. postman and lives with a drop-dead gorgeous brunette. We learn he was previously married and had kids, but was divorced after one of his kids (Macaulay Culkin) died. As if that weren’t already bad enough, poor Jacob is also seeing things, including ghostly faces in the subway and slimy Lovecraftian creatures that sexually molest his girlfriend. Between this and getting a really bad fever, Jacob seems to be “unstuck” in time and keeps going back and forth between Vietnam, the present, and his previous marriage. Is Jacob simply losing his mind? Is there some conspiracy that’s using him as a test subject for hallucinogenic drugs? Or is he actually being haunted by real demons? The only way to find out is to see this film, and I’ll warn you right now: this is not an easy film to watch.

Though it’s often forgotten or overlooked when people discuss horror films of the 1990s, Jacob’s Ladder is largely responsible for ushering in the “meta-horror” craze that later became so popular during that decade. “Meta-horror” is a subgenre that either blurs the line between fiction and reality, makes its characters aware that they are in a horror story, or both. Films like Candyman (1992), Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994), In the Mouth of Madness (1995), Scream (1996) and The Blair Witch Project (1999) each experiment with this premise in unique ways, but Jacob’s Ladder is what made them all possible. It threw out all the formulaic “rules” that had been established in previous decades (e.g., targeting the teenage demographic, following a linear sequence of events, featuring some or even too much comic relief, etc.). It also contains only a fair amount of splatter, offering a more psychological kind of atmosphere. This is primarily a suspense film, but it’s also a shocker that’s filled to the brim with some truly disturbing imagery.

There’s really not a whole lot I can say about this particular film without giving away some spoilers, but I will say that it’s a very different kind of horror movie. In most of these films, the threat of physical pain and/or death is usually what’s used to generate suspense. But the real threat here is emotional pain and dissociation. Jacob’s all alone in what he’s experiencing, and just when he starts to think that maybe he’s not alone, even weirder shit happens and he’s worse off than before. You can run away from a Michael Myers or a Jason Voorhees, but Jacob can’t run away from what’s happening to him; it’s inside his head, and it’s with him wherever he goes. The fact that we can’t put a face and a name to what’s happening only makes it worse. The real question, however, is whether the horrible things Jacob sees are all inside his head, or if perhaps they might also exist in the uncaring and unsympathetic world that surrounds him.

I screech whenever a really impressive monster surprises me in a horror flick – and truth be told, there are definitely some bizarre creatures to be seen in Jacob’s Ladder – but as an adult, I’m not too worried about ghosts and demons. I believe these things exist, but I know just what to do when and if they become a problem (i.e., work an execration spell). No, the things that really terrify me are things like (1) losing the people I love, (2) living around people who don’t really care what’s happening to me, (3) having no one to share my happy memories with, and (4) being trapped in a life that I can’t stand. These are emotional fears, and they’re exactly the sort of pressure points Jacob’s Ladder uses to get under your skin. I don’t sleep very well for a while each time I see this movie, but not because it makes me worry about stalkers or monsters under my bed. It keeps me up because it makes me think of how horrible it would be if all my friends and family suddenly died or stopped loving me.

But then again, when your girlfriend starts looking like this

When I really think about it, I suppose Jacob’s Ladder is actually about death after all…but not necessarily of the body. It’s more about the death of Ma’at, that social and spiritual bond between the self and others that makes this world worth living in. Perhaps there really is a monster that’s trying to swallow Jacob, and perhaps that monster is Apophis itself. I’ve always found it interesting that another name for the Evil Worm is Hau-Hra, which means “the Backward Face.” This could mean any number of things, but it always makes me think about how sometimes in life, we become our own worst enemies. When you know what you need to do to make things right and you just can’t make yourself do it (because part of you actually wants things to get worse), that’s the Backward Face. And if Jacob’s Ladder is about anything, I suppose it’s really about that part of every person that secretly wants inertia, that yearns for extinction.

The title of this film is taken from the Old Testament story of Jacob (Genesis 28:10-19), who has a prophetic dream about angels going up and down a gigantic ladder that reaches to heaven. The Hebrew God, Yahweh, tells Jacob that he will soon become the patriarch of a great nation. Jacob is terrified by all of this, but sure enough, his descendants become the nation of Israel. This story provides a symbolic clue as to what Jacob’s Ladder is really all about (but I can’t explain what I mean by this without giving it away). Suffice it to say that the film also has a very Buddhist message to it and was partially based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It was also originally going to be named after Dante’s Inferno, but I think Jacob’s Ladder was definitely the wiser choice.

I might also point out that, to the best of my knowledge at least, this is the first film to use that creepy “undercranking” effect for ghosts that we so often see in horror films today (i.e., that trope when people shake their heads back and forth supernaturally fast, like in the 1999 version of House on Haunted Hill). It’s called by this term because the effect is created by filming a sequence at a slower camera rate so that it appears sped up when it’s played back at normal speed. Some folks may feel this is a cliché nowadays (and they’d be right), but keep in mind that Jacob’s Ladder was the first to execute this technique in the particular way that it does, and that it blew a lot of people right out of their seats at the time. I still think the hospital scene toward the end of the film – when poor Jacob really starts losing his mind – is one of the most chilling things I’ve ever seen put on film (and get ready, because there’s undercranking all over the place in that part!).

With all that being said, Jacob’s Ladder probably isn’t the best film to put on for your Halloween party this year. Some of you might be surprised how many horror films there are that are actually fun and somehow uplifting to watch. (The Phantasm and Evil Dead films, for instance, are pretty damn funny.) But Jacob’s Ladder is not a “fun” horror film at all; in fact, I don’t recommend it for anyone who has or is currently struggling with depression. (Honestly, if this applies to you, then avoid this movie like the goddamn plague; I shit you not.) Mind you, Jacob’s Ladder isn’t a “bad” movie; it’s absolutely brilliant, and it deserves special mention for being one of the very few films I’ve seen that continues to upset me and keep me awake at night. Unfortunately, it’s so uncomfortably dark and emotionally terrifying that some people just aren’t going to enjoy it.


8 responses to “Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

  1. trellia October 11, 2014 at 5:03 pm

    I’ve had this on my “to watch” list for a while now, I really should get round to watching it!


  2. katakhanas October 20, 2014 at 2:14 pm

    I’ve always adored this film; I remember the visceral impression it made on me as a teen when I saw it during its first cinema release. It definitely made for thought-provoking dinner discussion that night with my best friend.

    Liked by 1 person

    • G. B. Marian October 21, 2014 at 7:06 am

      I totally didn’t see the ending coming! There’s also a deleted scene that lasts about 9 minutes and which you can see on YouTube. I heard that they cut it from the film because the audience at a test screening couldn’t handle it and walked right out! I won’t say what happens in it, but it was definitely disturbing and should have been kept in the film. Oh well, the movie’s awesome anyway and it certainly gives us a lot to think about.

      Liked by 1 person

      • katakhanas October 21, 2014 at 11:58 am

        Awesome! I’ll have to check out that deleted scene; I think my special edition DVD also has footage that never made it into the film proper. Tim Robbins was superbly cast, as was the late Elizabeth Pena as Jezebel!


  3. satanicpuritan February 22, 2015 at 9:07 pm

    This movie…so underrated. So incredibly visually pleasing and good.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Cassie Sophie Tina October 5, 2016 at 3:40 pm

    This one had passed me by but sounds very interesting. Thanks for the tip.

    Liked by 1 person

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