Film / Jacob's Ladder

"Dream on."

Jacob's Ladder (1990) is a psychological thriller / horror film directed by Adrian Lyne, based on a screenplay by Bruce Joel Rubin. It stars Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Peña, Danny Aiello, and Jason Alexander. Actor Macaulay Culkin appears briefly in an uncredited performance.

Jacob Singer isn't sure what's real anymore.

The nightmares he keeps having are tearing his life apart, one day at a time. They might be after-effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from his term of military service in Vietnam. They might be the side-effects from a secret and illegal drug trial that he and his platoon were unknowingly exposed to. Or they may be a result of his own mind slipping into insanity from the trauma of his young son's death.

But there is one possibility that terrifies him, even though day by day it seems more and more likely. The demons and monsters he keeps seeing — out of the corner of his eye, hiding in the shadows, lurking in his darkest nightmares — might be real. And if they are, then they're coming for him — and there's nothing he can do about it...

This movie was one of the primary inspirations for the Silent Hill franchise.

A remake is scheduled for 2018, helmed by The Perfect Guy director David M. Rosenthal.

Jacobs Ladder contains examples of:

  • Angel Unaware: Jacob's chiropractor Louie is implied to be an angel trying to save him.
    Jacob: You know you look like an angel? Like an overgrown cherub.
  • Angels, Devils and Squid: A variant where the angels, the demons, and the squid are all the same.
  • Abandoned Hospital: Many of the creepier hospital scenes take place in one of these.
  • Adult Fear: Plenty. Gabe's death, being trapped in a subway, friends dying one by one, becoming an Un-person, being taken hostage in broad daylight with witnesses pretending they don't see you, and so on.
  • An Arm and a Leg: One poor soldier in the opening has his leg hanging and flapping around, only a flap of skin keeping it on.
  • Arc Words: The song "Sonny Boy," as recorded by singer Al Jolson. Interestingly, the song's final verse clarifies that, much like Jacob, the narrator is grieving the death of his son:
    And the angels grew lonely / Took you because they were lonely / I'm lonely, too, sonny boy
    • "If you're frightened of dying, and you're holding on, you'll see devils tearing your life away. If you've made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the Earth."
  • Anachronism Stew: Jacob believes himself to be living in 1975. The taxi that takes him to his old residence has registration set to expire in 1972, as well as a "Nixon Now" pin that only appeared in '76. An occult book Jacob examines, A Witch's Bible, Volume 1, was not published until 1984.
  • Artistic License – Chemistry: The end of the film claims that BZ (3-Quinuclidinyl benzilate) was tested on U.S. troops during the Vietnam war. While BZ is a hallucinogen, it doesn't cause the subject to become insane with bloodlust. It's an incapacitating agent, causing mostly stupor and confusion. The strangest the side effects get is disrobing and grasping at imaginary objects. (It is likely, however, that the BZ snippet is merely a continuation of a Red Herring to keep the audience guessing at the film's true meaning. See Mockspiracy.) It's irrelevent anyway, since Michael states he was hired to create something worse that went "right to the primal fear, the base anger," strongly implying that they took BZ and turned it into The Ladder.
  • Author Appeal: A film about mortality and the afterlife? It's not a shock that it was written by Bruce Joel Rubin (Brainstorm, Ghost.)
  • Bad Santa: Played straight and Played for Laughs, at the same time. (A subtle one, but it's noteworthy that "Santa" is an anagram for "Satan".)
  • Bittersweet Ending: Jacob has been Dead All Along, but, after finally accepting his death, he is able to ascend to Heaven with his son.
  • Body Horror: The demons/angels, according to Adrian Lyne, were made to resemble thalidomide victims and other birth defects. These may include a lack of eyes, fleshy, veiny tails, and so on.
  • Broken Masquerade: The Artificial Realm variant.
  • Brutal Honesty: The demons/angels. They even outright tell him he's dead and to accept it in a Tough Love way.
  • Cassandra Truth: When asked who mugged him, Jacob blurts angrily, "Santa!... gonna get the bastard!" The doctor and nurse look at each other like Jacob's either high on drugs or really in shock.
  • Dark Is Not Evil / Good All Along: The horrid monstrosities and abominations? They're angels, trying to make Jacob accept his death and ascend to Heaven.
  • Dark World: Jacob keeps slipping back and forth between his everyday life and a darker realm inhabited by demons/angels.
  • Daylight Horror: Several scenes are very well-lit, including parts of the hospital sequence.
  • Dead All Along
  • Decapitation Presentation: In a scene that was shot but cut (and as of yet unreleased), Michael's head is found in his laboratory. Michael was one of the many What Happened to the Mouse? aspects of the film.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: After Louis cures Jacob of a slipped disc, the scene is reminiscent of a baby learning to walk. Which is deliberate as Jacob's beginning to be reborn - in preparation for his death.
  • Dying Dream: At the end, Jacob discovers that he never made it out of Vietnam. His nightmares were partly caused by the psychedelic drug he was given by the government.
  • Everybody Knew Already: The Bad Doctor actually spoils the entire movie, if you take what he's saying at face value.
    Jacob: Get me out of here.
    Evil Doctor: Where do you want to go?
    Jacob: Home.
    Evil Doctor: Home? This is your home. You're dead.
    Jacob: Dead? No. I just hurt my back, I'm not dead.
    Evil Doctor: What are you, then?
    Jacob: I'm alive.
    Evil Doctor: Then what are you doing here?
    Jacob: I don't know. This isn't happening.
    Evil Doctor: What is happening?
    Jacob: Get me out of here.
    Evil Doctor: (sighing with frustration) There is no "out of here". You've been killed, don't you remember?
    • Earlier in the film, he gets the same thing from the woman reading his palm.
      Palmreader: It's not funny. According to this, you're already dead! Get outta here baby!
    • Louis himself states, "If you're frightened of dying, and you're holding on, you'll see devils tearing your life away. If you've made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the Earth."
  • Evil Is Visceral: During the hospital gurney scene, many organs are shown lying on the floor, some of which get run over by the gurney. The director said that he wanted to use distortion of the flesh to make the film more frightening and harder to deny.
  • Eyeless Face: Many of the creatures haunting Jacob have no eyes.
  • Fan Disservice: Elizabeth Peña dancing suggestively while sweating? Hot. Elizabeth Peña dancing suggestively while sweating whilst being molested and then impaled by some sort of demon/angel? Not so much.
  • The Ferryman: The dream itself could be considered this. Particularly, a dime Jacob bends down to pick up was drawn to Paul Gruneger's car before it exploded. In ancient Greco-Roman burial practices, a coin was placed on or in the mouth of the deceased, to pay the trope namer Charon the fare for rowing the departed soul across the river to Tartarus, the land of the dead.
  • Flash Forward: Jacob projects himself into the early 80s, while dying in Vietnam in the early 70s.
  • Foreshadowing: All of the ads in the subway are anti-drug ads, including one that says being on drugs is like Hell. Think about it.
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus: Plenty. Like when Jezzie transforms briefly into something with black eyes and a gummed mouth with tiny teeth.
  • Good Is Not Nice: Louis cryptically tells Jacob early in the film that the nightmare creatures he's seeing are just trying to help him let go of his life and prepare himself for heaven.
  • Government Conspiracy: One of the plot threads involves a mysterious drug. At one point, Jacob finds out his entire war record has been erased, and all the people who knew him are being killed off one by one. Jacob is approached by a man claiming to be a military chemist who says that Jacob's unit was experimented on with a hallucinogen that caused them all to go insane and kill each other. The final card informs that BZ had been used on American troops during the Vietnam War.
  • The Hero Dies: Jacob himself, before the post-war events of which the majority of the film consists.
  • Holy Halo: When Jacob looks up at Louis and sees his head set aglow by the lamp above him, he notes that Louis looks just like an angel. This, and a lot of what Louis says in this scene, foreshadows that Louis is an angel.
  • Hospital Gurney Scene: It gets worse.
  • Impaled with Extreme Prejudice:
    • In the opening scene, Jacob gets bayoneted in the gut, badly.
    • Jezebel in a vision of Jacob's during her sex dance scene.
  • Ironic Hell: One of several explanations for what the hell is going on in this movie.
  • It Always Rains at Funerals
  • Jump Scare: Only two.
    • One during Jezzie's "dance with the devil" when the impossibly wide horn inexplicably sprouts from her mouth.
    • When Jacob sees Gabe in the mirror, he pushes it to catch more of a glimpse of him. A demon/angel pops out, Undercranked, as if to say, "No. You're not ready.".
  • Meaningful Name: The main characters have Biblical names which describe them: Jacob, Jezebel, Gabriel, Elijah, Jedediah, Michael and so on. Lampshaded by Jacob and Jezzie.
    Jezebel: I never went for church names.
    Jacob: Where do you think Jezebel came from?!
    • Also Lampshaded by a government mook: "Mr. Singer. What an appropriate name for a man who can't keep his mouth shut."
  • Mind Screw: The whole thing, really.
  • Mockspiracy: Jacob believes that he's being pursued by government agents who want to suppress the truth about the use of psychedelic drugs during the war. The drug story may or may not be true, but the conspiracy itself is just a Dying Dream of the protagonist who never actually made it out of Vietnam. His brain being on a psychedelic while dying might explain the idea is Dying Dream is akin to a bad trip — because it is a bad trip.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Jezzie, who spends a lot of time topless.
  • Mundane Horror: The movie is a master of "Uh, did I just see that?" moments. A nurse with a bone sticking out of her head, a creepy-looking sandwich in a fridge at a party, blood in a sink in a public toilet, etc.
  • Nice Guy: Nothing you can say will get a rise out of Jacob. He just laughs, though he'll genially toss a barb back at you, with no malice. Word of God says that it's deliberate, so that all the horrible stuff that he goes through is that much worse.
  • Nightmare Face: Many of Jacob's visions manifest in this way.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: See Sinister Subway, below.
    • Not scary, but chills when Jacob finally returns home - his old home - and he finds homework and food on the dining room table - books open, pie half-eaten, as if they were there and had just vanished. Of course, that's exactly what had happened - he's letting go and his past is vanishing.
    • Michael recounting what The Ladder did to chimps — then P.O.W.'s.
      Michael: We did experiments on jungle monkeys. They bashed each other's heads in, gouged out their eyes, chewed off their tails. The brass loved it. Then they made us try it on Charlie. (shaken) They took these POW's, just kids, really, and put 'em in a courtyard. We fed 'em huge doses of the stuff. (tears rolls down a cheek) They were worse than the monkeys. I never knew men could do such things.
  • Papa Wolf: Louis behaves like this when he rescues Jacob from the hospital. "Step closer and I'll wrap this (a gurney stand) around your neck!"
  • Peaceful in Death: Invoked almost verbatim by the triage doctor, who comments Jacob "looks kinda peaceful" after he dies.
  • Railroad Tracks of Doom: Played horrifyingly straight.
  • The Reveal: Aside from the Dying Dream: "You killed each other." Jacob got bayoneted by a fresh-faced American soldier (vets or military buffs probably figured it out much earlier, as the bayonet we see him stabbed with was an M7, the U.S. government issue in Vietnam).
  • Red Herring: The Government Conspiracy, to a degree.
  • Satan Is Good: While Louis, the angel and the demons/angels don't seem to like each other very much, it's implied that they're basically playing for the same team. They both want Jacob to accept his death, with the demons/angels using the stick, and Louis using the carrot.
  • Schrödinger's Butterfly: This is the entire premise of the film. The main character keeps bouncing back and forth between three realitiesnote , each of which shares some people and places in common, but both of which seem to have demons/angels in them as well. It's finally shown that he had died in Vietnam, and this was all just an in-your-head Purgatory.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: This is what Jacob is implied to be at first.
  • Shirtless Scene: Jacob and Jezebel both have a lot of them.
  • Shout-Out: The artist Francis Bacon, whom the Surreal Horror is based on.
    • The book, The Stranger appears twice over the course the movie. Though at first, it seems the book is only here to show that Jacob is studiying philosophy, the course of the movie reveal that both works have a similar theme as the endings of both works deal with the protagonists learning to let go of their life and hope and make peace with their deaths.
  • Sinister Subway: An early scene has Jacob getting lost in a New York subway station. It's almost unbearably dark and creepy, he encounters demons/angels there, and the train tries to kill him.
  • Stairway to Heaven: In the end of the film Jacob is seen walking up stairs into a bright white light with his dead son, we can only assume after he accepts that he's dead he's going to Heaven.
  • Surreal Horror: Inspired by the works of Francis Bacon, according to Word of God.