Before I start the movie review proper please allow me to indulge in telling you a little back-story, my own personal history with the movie, if you will. I was pretty young when it was released, far too young to watch it in fact but its name stuck with me. I listened to older people talk about it on a morning TV show (presumably a review section of a morning chat show type affair) and for some reason I remember their reactions. The movie obviously had garnered some pretty deep emotions in them. Their faces said everything that their mouths could not. To a child picture is everything and even at that age my brain made some form of mental note of the title after seeing the picture of those faces. Yes I was that type of kid.
Fast-forward some five years and this writer / movie enthusiast walks into a local video / vhs rental store fresh with the memory of a remembered movie title. He proceeds to ask the clerk if they “Have a movie called Jacob’s Ladder by any chance, I think that’s what it’s called” (pre internet days, ah youth) to which the clerk crunches his face, sucks breath through his teeth and shakes his head. “Oooh, I don’t think so mate, but just let me check” he responds. The young man wants to see this more than ever and prays that the title will appear in garish green font in front of the clerks eyes as he checks the computer. The clerk looks surprised. “Oh wow, we actually do. Are you sure you want that one though mate?” That face again. The young man responds with a resounding, “Yes please” and moments later he is walking home happy with a video in his hand.
On reflection, I was still probably a bit too young to watch it. By the closing credits it had left me shaken. It’s imagery, a living Francis Bacon if you could dare to imagine such a thing, its cold clinical nature and its ability to shock in a fraction of a second was unlike anything I had ever seen.
The movie, directed by Adrian Lyne, tells the tale of Jacob Singer, a troubled Vietnam vet played brilliantly by Tim Robbins, now living a very quiet life as a postman in NYC. Jacob is haunted by visions and hallucinations that seem very real to him and as the movie progresses they in turn get progressively more disturbing in their detail and frequency.
It plays around with a lot of different concepts and dips its misshapen toe into many genre pools. For a horror movie, it has significant emotional clout behind the scares, much more than any other conventional horror movie. For a psychological thriller, or drama it can whip the rug from beneath your feet and leave you genuinely uneasy with its shocking imagery and revelations. An extended scene in a hospital towards the end is still to this day, very hard to watch.
Loss is such a powerful emotion, and when handled right in the context of film it can be incredibly effective. There are reflections on loss several times throughout and the scenes in question are constructed with such care and attention to detail that is almost impossible not to relate to them in some way and feel overwhelmed.
Indeed, the themes of morality and mortality coil themselves around each other and construct the twisted backbone of the movie. By the final act they are inseparable forming the neurological centre or brain if you will, the chilling and yet emotional conclusion.
Over the years and after several viewings it has grown to be one of my favourite movies. Horror is such a personal thing. What’s scary for you might not necessarily be scary for me and vice versa. Jacob’s Ladder is scary for me. It is the real and the every day corrupted by the terrible and the peculiar, a style the likes of which David Lynch has mastered in his work. It is absolutely unwavering in its intent to keep you on edge and unlike many other horror set-ups it never relies on laughs or comic relief to break tension. If you’re anything like me Jacob’s Ladder will shock and sadden you in equal measure and leave you questioning everything you have just seen. Having said that however, if you truly are like me then you have probably seen the movie already.