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WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?! – Jacob’s Ladder

August 22, 2012

by greg moss

A series of posts in which I bring to light twenty of the best MIND BENDER MOVIES ever made. And what exactly constitutes a mindbender movie?  Well, it can be any number of things –

It can be a story told primarily from the first person perspective of a protagonist who is delusional, suffering a breakdown or just plain crazy (Repulsion, Videodrome, Black Swan). Or, it can be a non-linear narrative which jumps back and forth through a person’s life for metaphysical reasons unknown (Slaughterhouse Five, The Tree Of Life).

Or it can be a combination of these.

But ultimately, the protagonist (and therefore the viewer) is compelled to question their own concepts of reality and the mysteries of being, while not necessarily being spoon-fed the answers.


Due to the nature of the films I’ll be covering in this series, I will attempt to skirt around particular plot points and ‘reveals’ as much as possible. If I do feel the desire to express my own personal interpretation of a particular film, there will be adequate spoiler warnings.

Okay … so let’s go!

First up, the mother of all mindbender movies, and one of my personal faves …


Directed by Adrian Lyne (Flashdance, Fatal Attraction). Written by Bruce Joel Rubin. Starring: Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Pena, Matt Craven, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Jason Alexander, Patricia Kalember, Eriq La Salle, Ving Rhames, Brian Tarantina and Danny Aiello. Running time: 113 mins.

Postal worker Jacob Singer awakens on a subway train and begins to see visions of demons. He comes to suspect his visions are the result of a mind-control experiment conducted while serving in Vietnam.

Hailed as one of the ten best unproduced screenplays in American Film Magazine in the mid-80’s, Jacob’s Ladder was written in 1981 by Bruce Joel Rubin (who prior to this wrote The George Dunlap Tape in 1973, the original script which became Brainstorm – Douglas Trumbull’s second feature as director in 1983). In 1990 (the same year Jacob’s Ladder was finally produced) Rubin’s screenplay for Ghost became a hit movie and in 1993 he helmed his first feature – the Michael Keaton, Nicole Kidman weepie My Life. He also wrote the screenplays for Deep Impact (1998) and The Time Traveler’s Wife in 2009.

But it is Jacob’s Ladder which remains Rubin’s crowning achievement.

Bruce Joel Rubin (b. 1943 – )

Rubin – a NY film school graduate (whose classmates included Martin Scorsese, Brian DePalma, Lewis Teague, James McBride and Michael Wadleigh) – was inspired to devote his filmmaking career to writing metaphysically-themed screenplays after spending a couple of years in his twenties back-packing through Asia – soaking up as much eastern philosophy as he could. His screenplay for The George Dunlap Tape (which later became Brainstorm) was originally meant as a showcase for what he had learnt during this spiritual pilgrimage – but much of the eastern metaphysical content was jettisoned by director Trumbull in favour of an overtly Christian sensibility.

Somewhat rankled by the changes made to Brainstorm, Rubin saw Jacob’s Ladder as another opportunity to further explore the ideas which so affected him.

The opening sequence (following the Vietnam flashback) in which Jacob finds himself trapped in a deserted subway station with no hope of escape was itself inspired by an unsettling dream Rubin experienced. It was this catalyst which originally compelled Rubin to write the screenplay in the first place – much like the fever dream which inspired James Cameron to write The Terminator.

It’s no surprise Jacob’s Ladder was inspired by an actual dream, as the film itself has the tone and feel of one long extended dream or perhaps several dreams intercut together. This is by no means a criticsm, but merely an observation of one of the many aspects which makes the film so engrossing and intriguing.

Like all great mindbender movies, it will quietly demand a second or third or fourth viewing.

Several high-profile directors were attached to Jacob’s Ladder in the early to mid-80’s – including Sidney Lumet, Brian DePalma and Ridley Scott. However, the scale of mounting such lavish special effects set-pieces (the size of the projected budget at the time was $20 million) and the perceived dark tone of the screenplay, meant that the film would (ironically) languish in development Hell for the best part of a decade.

Here’s an excerpt from Rubin’s screenplay – it’s from the party scene where Jacob sees partygoers transform into demons …

“Suddenly a strange and terrifying spectacle unfolds before Jacob. The dancers undergo a shocking transformation … Horns and tails emerge and grow like exotic genitalia … new appendages appear, unfolding from their flesh. Dorsal fins protrude from their backs. Armoured scales run in scallops down their legs … Bones and flesh mold into new forms of life, creatures of another world.”

Special prosthetic effects designer Gordon J. Smith eschewed Rubin’s medieval depictions of demons (as seen in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch) – opting instead for a more ‘contempory vision of horror’ – inspired by the works of 20th century painter Francis Bacon and the disturbing S & M photography of Joel-Peter Witkin.

Detail of ‘Hell’ by Hieronymus Bosch (b.1450 – d.1516)

 ‘Portrait of Michel Leris’ 1976 by Francis Bacon (b. 1902 – d. 1992)

‘Mother And Child With Retractor Screaming’ 1979 by Joel-Peter Witkin (b. 1939 – )

Asylum – Jacob’s Ladder

Smith applied grotesque prosthetics to the actors and had them shaking their heads vigorously, as the camera ran at four frames per second, in order to capture the blurred sense of movement inherent in Bacon’s portraits – a simple technique, but unsettlingly effective. Actually, it’s interesting to note that no opticals or post-production visual effects were employed in this movie – everything you see was done ‘in-camera’ – giving the film a heightened sense of realism sadly lacking in the CGI-saturated genre movies of today.

Subway train apparition

Despite the fact Rubin shies away from the comparison, the structure of Jacob’s Ladder bares a striking resemblance to the celebrated short story An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge written by Ambrose Bierce (c. 1842). A film version of the story appeared as an episode of the original Twilight Zone TV series in 1962 and it won not only the Grand Prix Award at Cannes, but also the Academy Award for best live action subject. If you are unaware of An Occurrence and have yet to see Jacob’s Ladder, I urge you to steer clear of the former – as it will indeed diminish the effect of the latter. Perhaps seek out An Occurrence after seeing Jacob’s Ladder.

One intriguing idea found in Rubin’s screenplay which didn’t make it to the screen per se was revealed by the writer in the April 1991 issue of Cinefantastique magazine:

“There is, in fact, a part in the film which did not survive which is about an apocalypse. An individual experiencing their own demise will experience an intimation of the world’s demise. There was originally a sense in the film that the world was actually coming to an end.”

Sure, the idea of an approaching apocalypse isn’t as overtly expressed as it was in the screenplay, but I do feel there is still a palpable sense of decay and collapse infusing the world depicted in the film, thanks in part to the gritty production design by Brian Morris (Angel Heart, Pink Floyd: The Wall) coupled with Jeffrey Kimball’s moody lensing. The impression of impending doom is certainly evident – if perhaps somewhat understated.

Elizabeth Pena as Jezzie

Performances throughout are very good. Particularly good are Tim Robbins in the lead and Elizabeth Pena as his love interest, Jezzie. One senses real chemistry between the two. Also notable are Danny Aiello as Jacob’s chiropractor cum spiritual advisor, Louie, and Pruitt Taylor Vince as one of Jacob’s troubled Vietnam buddies, Paul.

Adrian Lyne’s assured direction is non-showy and restrained, allowing the complex (but not complicated) narrative to unfold in a way which is wholly satisfying.

And the evocative music score by Maurice Jarre, which combines eastern motifs with western synths, is one of his finest.

Despite the dark tone of the film, Rubin’s message is reassuring and clear – for anyone who fears death and the inevitable ending of their lives – there is nothing to fear – but fear itself.

For those willing to go out on a cinematic limb, Jacob’s Ladder reaches lofty heights and is well worth the climb.

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes right-brained people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies.


From → feature articles

  1. Love this movie. One of my favourite horror films.

    I first saw this at the cinema whilst on a blind date (!) arranged by my cousin and his girlfriend. Not exactly a date movie is it! I thought it was fantastic but my three associates were utterly bemused, not understanding any of it. I was walking out with them, buzzed by this great movie, and they were totally lost, confused by the whole thing. “Something about the Vietnam war?” my cousin muttered as we walked out. My blind date (Chantelle, her name was) didn’t ‘get’ the film at all, which was the end of that relationship straight away. As we walked out to the carpark I had to explain the film to them in minute detail. I couldn’t figure out why they hadn’t understood the film. I don’t think Chantelle understood it even after my lengthy explanation.

    I believe a remake is in the works. Its as pointless and unnecessary as the RoboCop remake. I think Jacobs Ladder is perfect as it is. No doubt a remake will be more literal and graphic with CGI, and transfer Vietnam to the Gulf War or Afghanistan, but it won’t improve on anything important like the great performances or the oppresive mood of the whole thing.

    • gregory moss permalink

      I reckon the only way one could remake this movie would be to go back to Bruce Joel Rubin’s original vision (with all its classical medieval imagery – which was originally dumped wholesale for budgetary reasons). I don’t have a problem with remakes per se (some of my favorite films are remakes) – so long as they’re done for artistic reasons.

  2. gregory moss permalink

    Just heard the sad news of Elizabeth Pena’s passing. Very sad news indeed. Vale Elizabeth. 😦

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