Monday, 26 October 2015

October Nightmares #26: Jacob's Ladder (1990)


As a caveat concerning the objectivity of this review, I am going to state categorically that without Jacob's Ladder (1990) I might not be the horror aficionado that I am today. In previous reviews, I've recounted my early dalliances with the genre, mainly with various John Carpenter movies, but I didn't really get into horror until the Silent Hill video game series. The series, which began in 1999, captured my young mind with its unique blend of unpleasant imagery, feverish occult themes, and psychological mind-games. From the very first I was hooked, like the unfortunate victims of a bizarre fishing accident. I can't imagine, however, that Silent Hill would have been able to render nearly the same level of impact without the influence of Jacob's Ladder. One can see the film's influence in Silent Hill's duality between the real and the imagined, perturbing symbolism, and horrific imagery (such as the blurry, shaking heads and strange, mutilated humanoids). Though I'm sure series mainstay Harry Mason would still be bumbling around like an Alzheimer's suffering, looking for his frigging daughter.

Jacob's Ladder is one of those movies that seemingly always carries the 'it was all a dream' card around, just in case its girlfriend walks in on it having an affair. Opening with a nightmarish depiction of Vietnam warfare, the film sees its soldier protagonist, Jacob (Tim Robbins), laying comatose after being stabbed by a member of the Viet Cong.  But then the movie switches to a surreal version of New York, focusing on the most horrifying tale of all - the life of a returning war veteran. Back home, Jacob feels increasingly distant and isolated- I suppose being haunted by terrifying visions of demonic entities doesn't particularly help matters, either. Imagine taking a short sabbatical from your social circle and when you return, you find they've created these little in-jokes that serve only to exclude you - that is Jacob's life post-Vietnam.
Jacob has a Ph.D. but is trapped in his job as a postal clerk, and confined to a poky-little apartment - he has a knockout girlfriend, Jezzie (Elizabeth Peña), but is estranged from his wife and children. His post-war existence feels bleak and detached; Jacob is adrift in a meaningless void, a sentiment reflected throughout writer Bruce Joel Rubin's mixture of allegoric horror story and anti-war drama. Jacob only has to adopt a small dog with a perpetually sad countenance and take to wearing stained blankets to complete the career trajectory of the returning soldier. 

Perhaps the oddest aspect of Jacob's Ladder - bearing in mind that this is a film where Elizabeth Peña is penetrated by a winged demon in a nightclub - is that it comes to us by way of Adrian Lyne. A director who can be charitably described as the ringleader of Hollywood's cabal of mediocre dirty old men. The vast majority of his 'illustrious' body of work focuses on sexually charged narrations and Mickey Rourke's fat arse. Jacob's Ladder, on the other hand, wallows in the grittiness of New York City. A far cry from the glamour of Flashdance's glistening water dances. This is the same raw, insomniac city seen in the likes of Taxi Driver and Max Payne - populated entirely by the spiritually burned-out. Paranoia, specifically the fear of being consumed by the urban jungle, runs deep and informs Jacob's military conspiracy theories. In order to achieve his stark vision, Lyne utilises a saturated colour palette and flat set design. It's hardly much of a stretch to picture a world-weary chain-smoking detective patrolling the streets, spouting lines like: "the broken broad laid sprawled out on the pavement. A stiff. Like a thawing chicken on the counter top". 

But the reason I mentioned the it's all a dream cop-out, is because Jacob's Ladder veers into this territory like an elderly driver veering into the path of school children. The film's grand reveal is that the Vietnam sequences are the 'present' and Jacob, in his dying moments, is hallucinating an entire reality. Well, that's not entirely accurate. His imagined reality is inter-cut with flashbacks and allegorical symbolism so it can be seen as something of a mixture of parallel reality, fantasy, and a vision of the celestial - similar to Ambrose Bierce's 1891 short story, An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge. I wish my fantasies were so coherent and artfully designed; anything would be preferable to tearful masturbatory reminiscences over girls for whom I used to have a thing. The narrative is so densely packed with religious iconography and philosophical musings, and irregular time sequences, that it's too smart for a genre piece and, consequently, would probably have worked more naturally as a book. Rubin, clearly knowledgeable on ecclesiastical matters, even manages to work in a Meister Eckhart quote: "...But if you've made your peace then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the Earth." That line is delivered by Jacob's chiropractor friend, Louis (Danny Aiello), an angelic figure who is William Osler as played by John Candy.

Jacob's Ladder works as both a horror film and an existential exploration of a man's crippling mental illness. In fact, remove the appearances of the demons entirely and the film would still be a taut exploration of a troubled war veteran. It's essentially Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dolloway with James Patterson-esque monsters. But I feel that the horror imagery, the sprawling shots of Jacob in a desolate subway, and the Hellish, the Victorian era injustices at the mental hospital, provide meaning to Jacob's sense of unease. Rubin is drawing a parallel between the feelings of detachment and alienation, which plague ex-soldiers as they return to civilian life, and the Catholic doctrine of Hell being a place of exclusion from all - including God. The focus on concepts such as spiritual annihilation elevates what could have simply been an enjoyable thriller in the style of Man on Fire, to an artistic horror piece with more possible interpretations than a doctor's scrawling handwriting.