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Film / Jacob's Ladder

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"Dream on."

Jacob's Ladder is a 1990 Psychological Horror film directed by Adrian Lyne, from a screenplay by Bruce Joel Rubin. It stars Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Peña, Danny Aiello, Matt Craven, Pruitt Taylor Vince, and Jason Alexander.

Jacob Singer (Robbins) 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 The Vietnam War. They might be side-effects of 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 still another possibility that terrifies Jacob, one that day by day 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. Macaulay Culkin, in an uncredited performance, appears as Jacob's deceased son, Gabe. Patricia Kalember appears as his ex-wife, Sarah. Eriq La Salle and Ving Rhames play a couple of his fellow Vietnam vets. And Lewis Black shows up as his doctor.

A remake was released in 2019, helmed by The Perfect Guy director David M. Rosenthal.

No relation to the Jacob's Ladder Trilogy books by Elizabeth Bear.

Jacobs Ladder contains examples of:

  • Abandoned Hospital: Many of the creepier hospital scenes take place in one of these.
  • Afterlife Angst: Eventually it is revealed that Jacob never made it out of Vietnam, and the monsters symbolize his fear of death and unwillingness to accept that he has died.
  • Afterlife Express: Invoked at the beginning where Jacob wakes up on a subway train but is wanting to get off so he can go home get back to his normal life. However, Jacob doesn't realize that there is no going home and may as well stay on the train as he's irreversibly dying from a stab wound. The train also has a advert posted indirectly warning Jacob that he's been drugged and help is available.
  • Ambiguously Brown: Jezzie Pipkin is played by Cuban-American actress Elizabeth Peña. It's unclear whether Jezzie was meant to be Hispanic despite her Jewish or Polish-sounding surname.
  • 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.
  • Angels, Devils and Squid: A variant where the angels, the demons, and the squid are all the same.
  • Angel Unaware: Jacob's chiropractor Louis is implied to be an angel trying to save him.
    Jacob: You know you look like an angel? Like an overgrown cherub.
  • 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. The discrepancies could hint at something more supernatural.
  • 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 (1990).)
  • Badass Bookworm: Jacob is a mild-mannered, scholarly man by nature, but as a Vietnam vet he holds his own in a fight with two government thugs sent to rough him up and intimidate him.
  • Bad Santa: Played straight and Played for Laughs at the same time with the Salvation Army Santa that steals Jacob's wallet. (A subtle one, but it's noteworthy that "Santa" is an anagram for "Satan".)
  • Big Damn Heroes: Louis breaks Jacob out of the nightmarish hospital, berating them for their barbaric treatment of him.
  • 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.
  • The Cameo:
    • Lewis Black has a minor but memorable role as Jacob's doctor.
    • Perry Lang appears as Jacob's assailant in Vietnam.
  • 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, even though it was Santa...just one of the Salvation Army Santas.
  • Dark Is Not Evil: The horrifying monstrosities and abominations haunting Jacob are really just trying to help him.
  • Dark World: Jacob keeps slipping back and forth between his everyday life and a darker realm inhabited by demons/angels.
  • Dead All Along: Jacob never made it out of Vietnam; the whole movie was his Dying Dream.
  • 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.
  • Demonic Head Shake: Most likely the Trope Maker. Jacob encounters several "twitcher" characters, signifying his mind slipping into madness. The most famous scene is of a hooded, legless man doing the head shake. They filmed the actor waving his head around at 4fps, resulting in an incredibly fast and deeply disturbing motion when played back at the normal frame-rate of 24fps. The imagery was inspired by Witkin's 1976 photograph "Man With No Legs".
  • 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.
  • Downer Beginning: The film opens with Jacob being bayoneted by his own fellow soldier. It's immediately brushed off as a bad dream, but the film's climax makes it evident that this actually happened.
  • Dude, Not Funny!: Jed gets a Dope Slap by his mom Sarah when he comments, "Just hang in there, Dad!" (Jacob's legs are suspended in the hospital bed to immobilize his bad back.)
  • 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.
  • Ending by Ascending: The film, whose name is an allusion to the Stairway to Heaven trope, ends with Jacob and his late son ascending the stairs in their home as Jacob passes away.
  • 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?
    • During the party, he gets the same thing from the woman reading his palm.
      Palm Reader: 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. In fact, Pena could not do the scene unless her closest friend was her dance partner.
  • 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.
    • At one point, Jacob looks at his chiropractor Louis and jokes that he looks like an angel from heaven.
    • When Jacob is inside a car with government agents who feel that Jacob is talking to too many people about his experiences in Vietnam, one tells him ominously that his service in Vietnam was another life and that he needs to move on from that. That comment is true in a literal sense, as he's trying to get through to Jacob bluntly and tell him that he is dying (wounded in Vietnam!).
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus: Plenty. Like when Jezzie transforms briefly into something with black eyes and a gummed mouth with tiny teeth.
  • From Bad to Worse: Plenty. Gabe's death, being trapped in a subway, war, 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.
  • Good All Along: The creatures Jacob sees are trying to get him to accept his own death so he can pass on over to Heaven. However, well, see below.
  • Good Is Not Nice: Louis cryptically tells Jacob late 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.
  • Hate Plague: "The Ladder" works in that fashion, since it's a powerful experimental hallucinogen Jacob's unit was subjected to that caused them to kill each other. Jacob was fatally wounded by a fellow crazed out solider instead of an enemy Vietnamese.
  • 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, implies that Louis is an angel.
  • Hope Spot: The film has several instances where the audience is led to think that Jacob returns to a safe, normal "reality" with his wife and living children, only to cut back (and forth) to his troubled life with Jezzie and the plague of demonic beings haunting him. Of course, later we realize that all scenes of Jacob's life in New York post-Vietnam were themselves the dreams and hallucinations of a dying man.
    • Another example is a deleted scene where the Chemist provides an antidote to Jacob's hallucinations. After taking the alleged cure, Jacob still hears demonic voices taunting him with "Dream on!"
  • Hospital Gurney Scene: In one that's considered one of the scariest ever made (and provided a great deal of inspiration for Silent Hill), an abducted Jacob is strapped to a gurney and wheeled through a hospital that gets progressively more dilapidated and bloody, and its patients more unhinged and horrific.
  • Impaled with Extreme Prejudice:
    • In the opening scene, Jacob gets bayoneted in the gut, badly.
    • Jezebel in a vision of Jacob's during her sexy dance scene.
  • Ironic Hell: One of several explanations for what the hell is going on in this movie. Louis implies it's meant to be a Karmic Reform Hell to help him come to terms with his Afterlife Angst.
  • The Journey Through Death: The whole thing may be a twisted journey to the protagonist's acceptance of their death. Possibly.
  • 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."
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: While the Government Conspiracy to test drugs on American soldiers is confirmed as actually happening - probably — everything that happens after Jacob gets bayoneted is just a Dying Dream. So is his flatlining brain hallucinating everything about the demons/angels that are supposedly tormenting him, or is the afterlife plot actually real and everything that happens to him is a final judgment of his soul before he's ready to pass on?
  • 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."
  • Mental Monster: Freudian creatures that torment Jacob Singer's dying mind. Their heads twitch and they moan in agony, looking much like the victims of his unit after being attacked by the Viet Cong in Vietnam. The film is also rife with Medical Horror, with characters like the eyeless surgeon and his disturbing staff, representing Jacob's inability to let go of his life and die peacefully as the war surgeons try to revive him.
  • 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.
  • Mood Whiplash: The film alternates between mundane or even comical scenes to terrifying or disturbing ones. A good example is a moment where a group of black girls playfully tease Jacob by singing "Mr. Postman" as he walks down the road, and moments later he's nearly run down by a car with a distorted, demonic driver and passengers.
  • 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.
  • Not Afraid of Hell: Played with. It's implied that the only thing to fear about Hell (or the afterlife in general) is holding on too tightly to this plane of existence:
    Louis: ...your memories, your attachments—they burn them all away. But they're not punishing you, he said. They're freeing your soul. Relax. So the way he sees it: if you're frightened of dying and... you're holding on, you'll see devils tearing your life away. But if you've made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the earth.
  • Nothing Is Scarier:
    • See Sinister Subway below.
    • Not scary, but chills when Jacob finally returns home — to 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 monkeys — 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!"
  • Paranoid Thriller: Jacob is gradually driven to paranoia, as he believes he's being pursued by both government agents and surreal monsters, and cannot tell reality from delusions. He's actually dying in a hospital, and all of his post-Vietnam life is a dream before he dies.
  • Peaceful in Death: Invoked almost verbatim by the triage doctor, who comments Jacob "looks kinda peaceful" after he dies.
  • Posthumous Character: Gabe's death, getting hit by a car while picking up baseball cards that fell from his bicycle spokes, is something Jacob hasn't come to terms with.
  • Purgatory and Limbo: The final reveal is that Jacob died in combat in Vietnam, and what he saw as his life falling apart and the demonic visions he wasn't sure were actually real was actually all just a last dream before death, preparing him for the afterlife.
  • Railroad Tracks of Doom: Played horrifyingly straight.
  • Red Herring: The government conspiracy, to a degree.
  • The Reveal: Aside from the fact that he's dying, and this is a 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).
  • Revealing Continuity Lapse: Strange and surreal things are littered all over the story, which includes changes to Jacob's known reality. His hospital has no recollection of him ever visiting, his doctor supposedly died, he and his Vietnam veteran buddies were supposedly discharged before ever departing, and more.
  • 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 all 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: Jacob is still pretty shaken up by his experiences in Vietnam, as are his platoon mates.
  • Shirtless Scene: Jacob and Jezebel both have a lot of them.
  • Shout-Out:
    • The film's Surreal Horror imagery is based on works from the artist Francis Bacon.
    • 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 studying 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.
    • Louis paraphrases medieval mystic Meister Eckhart's views on death and the afterlife in his conversations with Jacob.
  • 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.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: For all of the horror and torture in the movie there's a surprisingly idealistic backdrop to the story. The hell Jacob endures is ultimately for his own sake as the monsters try to get him to accept his own death. Louis's speech to Jacob at the end encapsulates this.
  • 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.
  • Subways Suck: The subway scene is framed in this manner, yet the train Jacob is on is inexplicably sparsely occupied while Jacob's Bergen Street exit is sealed off like an abandoned part if the station. Also doubles as a Sinister Subway.
  • Surreal Horror: Inspired by the works of Francis Bacon, according to Word of God.
  • Suspiciously Apropos Music: "Sonny Boy" is sung several times during the film. It's about a father reconciling the death of his young son, and it also talks about angels.
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: Things only make slightly more sense when you learn that Jacob's unit was subjected to military experiments during the war. We think.
  • Tomato in the Mirror: In the Deleted Scene, Jezzie turns out to be Jacob himself. She was a What Happened to the Mouse? in the theatrical cut.
  • Tough Love: If you subscribe to "really angels freeing you from the earth" sentiment, it has to be the toughest love ever seen on the silver screen.
  • Undercrank: Used on all the demons/angels. This film pioneered the use of this effect in horror movies.
  • War Is Hell: The opening battle in Vietnam is brutal — and that's not even considering that the war influenced the US military to experiment on young POWs, as detailed in Nothing Is Scarier above.
  • Wham Line:
    Jacob: (in tears) Get me out of here!
    Evil Doctor: There is no "out of here". You've been killed. Don't you remember?
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: It's not clear which (if any) members of Jacob's unit survived the firefight, since all of the scenes where Jacob interacts with them post-Vietnam are Jacob's own dying dreams or hallucinations, which would include the car explosion "death" of Paul.
  • Wise Beyond Their Years: Post-mortal Gabe. Intended as such according to Word of God, who said Gabe would guide Jacob. Of course, considering who Gabriel is named after...
  • You Have to Believe Me!: Upon admittance to the hospital, a disoriented Jacob tells the doctor that Santa Claus stole his wallet with his dead son's only picture in it. It's perhaps ironic, given the themes of epiphanic purgatory and letting one's past attachments go, that the Santa is question was a Salvation Army bellringer — and "Santa" is an anagram for "Satan."
  • Younger Mentor, Older Disciple: Jacob's deceased toddler son Gabe guides him to Heaven, now infinitely wiser from his time in the Afterlife.
  • Your Other Left: Louis every time he tells Jacob to turn on his side while lying on the chiropractic bed.