Tuesday, October 21, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 20 - Jacob's Ladder

#6 (Tie) - 8 Votes

George Romero once said, "The reason you do horror is to upset the applecart." That is, horror stories are designed to create disorder, whether it's in the form of societal collapse or the psychological and spiritual chaos of the characters. More often than not, horror movies end with the restoration of order, allowing audiences to exit the theater and breathe easy knowing the alien has been blasted into deep space, or the axe-wielding maniac has been killed (until the next sequel), or the devil has been exorcised from Regan McNeil's body. On the other hand, the '60s and '70s saw a rise in horror movies, like Halloween, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Romero's Night of the Living Dead, that deliberately deny the audience the resolution of order restored. Volumes have been written about how these movies reflected the increasingly pessimistic attitudes of the time, and I won't get into it in any depth, but stories that force us to consider the possibility that everything is irreparably fucked serve as important a purpose as those that give us reason to hope otherwise.

As I get older and more keenly aware of my own mortality, though, I have an increased appreciation for a third, much rarer kind of horror movie. These are the ones that don't shy away from gazing directly into the abyss, but still arrive at an earned sense of hope. Jacob's Ladder is one of the best examples of this, literally putting its protagonist through hell before ending on an unexpected, transcendent note. While much of the movie telegraphs the fate of Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins), a Vietnam vet who is increasingly plagued with hallucinations (or visions) of demons, the final reveal (which I won't spoil here) doesn't play like it was meant to be a shocking twist. Instead, the audience is cued towards gradually understanding what's happening with Jacob at the same time that he does. Jacob's Ladder gives nightmarish form to our worst anxieties, but in the end, it's an uncommonly compassionate horror movie.

Screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin (who also wrote Ghost released the same year) creates some truly horrifying visions of death and the afterlife, which are brilliantly realized by director Adrian Lyne and his crew. A scene where Jacob thinks he's seeing his girlfriend (the late, great Elizabeth Peña) get down with a demon at a party is a mini-masterpiece of disorienting lighting and sound design. Throughout the movie, Lyne keeps us on edge by placing weird, nearly subliminal characters and images (achieved ingeniously using in-camera effects) on the margins of the frame. Lyne also made a big change to Rubin's script, which depicted its demons with old-fashioned Biblical iconography, horns and all; instead, the director literally stages hell on earth, with the high point a scene where Jacob is pushed on a gurney through a hospital that quickly grows more and more nightmarish (I've seen the movie several times, and this scene still gives me the creeps). Lyne has always been a great visual stylist - like his peers Alan Parker and Ridley and Tony Scott, he works wonders with smoke and diffused light - but most of his other movies, like Flashdance and Indecent Proposal, are pretty shallow. Jacob's Ladder is by far his most thematically complex movie, and he was also wise to cast Tim Robbins, who is remarkably vulnerable and sympathetic as Jacob.

Not all of the movie's puzzle pieces fit together in the end. There's a subplot about Jacob and the other members in his unit having been secretly dosed with experimental hallucinogens by the government; it's introduced as a possible explanation for his hallucinations, and the movie seems like it's about to become a conspiracy thriller. The subplot does end up playing an important role in the resolution, just not the one we thought; then, after the movie fades to black at the perfect moment, a postscript about real-life Army medical experiments comes onscreen, as if somebody completely misunderstood what the movie is really about. It's a weird choice, but the movie is strong enough that it's easy to shrug off. Jacob's experiences in Vietnam and his lingering grief over the accidental death of his young son (Macaulay Culkin) are important aspects of the character, but the movie is primarily about letting go, and how that doesn't need to be a frightening prospect. Jacob's Ladder is very thoughtful and literate about death and our greatest existential questions without ever veering into New Age-y baloney and easy answers. A lot of horror movies are about spirits, but a horror movie about a spiritual journey is a rare thing, and one this scary and thought-provoking is even better.

U.S. Release Date: November 2, 1990 (Also released that day: Graffiti Bridge, Waiting for the Light, Frankenstein Unbound, Vincent & Theo, C'est La Vie)

What critics said at the time:

"Jacob's Ladder, which serves up horror in subliminal, jump-cut flashes, is a gruesome ''psychological'' thriller — a bad acid trip of a movie — and it may appeal to those who got off on the druggy, soft-focus demonism of Angel Heart. Yet the film is just highfalutin hackwork — two hours of anything-for-a-shock unpleasantness. The script, by Bruce Joel Rubin (Ghost), has been kicking around Hollywood for nearly 10 years. (According to reports, it's the script everyone loved but no one dared to film.) Rubin's conception might have worked on screen, but we'll never know, since Lyne (Flashdance, 9 1/2 Weeks), who finally proved himself a genuine filmmaker in Fatal Attraction, is up to his old high-gloss tricks. In Jacob's Ladder, he directs like a sadistic psychiatrist under contract to MTV." - Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly

"'Jacob's Ladder' enters into the hallucinations of a desperate mind, and lives there. It evokes a paranoid-schizophrenic state as effectively as any film I have ever seen. Despite an ending that is intended as victorious, the movie is a thoroughly painful and depressing experience - but, it must be said, one that has been powerfully written, directed and acted." - Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

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