A Vietnam veteran struggles to maintain his sanity as he’s bombarded with delusions that might be the result of something that happened while he fought in the war.
As of today, I’ve reviewed nine films for our 31 Nights of Thrills series, and this has easily been the best so far. “Jacob’s Ladder” is a thrilling, hellish journey through madness and delusions. Frequently terrifying, startlingly unsettling, and deliciously dark in execution, this is one of my favorite horror/thrillers from the 90s. The plot is twisted, grim, and devilish, and the payoff at the end of the film is incredibly satisfying, plus, it features one of my favorite roles of younger Tim Robbins (“Mystic River”).
"New York is filled with creatures."
Jacob Singer is a Vietnam vet now living in New York. He suffers from strange delusions every once in a while, but the delusions are growing increasingly frequent and steadily more disturbing. He thinks he’s seeing demons, and he doesn’t know what to do. Concerned and confused, Jacob tries to puzzle together clues from his unraveling mind in order to solve the mystery of what is happening to him.
One of the best things about this movie is its structure. I’ve seen this film several times, and each time I’ve been impressed with the way certain storylines are woven together. We learn about Jacob’s past and present in a way that feels almost like a fever dream, and the fact that strange creatures have started to populate his mind makes everything far more nightmarish and strange. We never really know when or why these creatures will pop up, and with repeat viewings I had forgotten about some of the incidents. The infusion of delusions into Jacob’s memories keeps the viewer taught and tense, it’s hard to ever relax when the world feels so foreboding. While the story structure is sort of disjointed, that is meant to make the viewer confused, and it works perfectly since our protagonist spends the entire film rather confused as well. We’re trying to puzzle out what’s happening right along Jacob; the movie is as much a mystery as it is a horror film. Beyond the story structure, the actual dialogue and writing is quite good too. As I mentioned, this was not my first time viewing this movie, so I was expecting the twist this time through and watched for foreshadowing, and holy cow, there is a lot of it. Little things characters say give huge insight into what will happen later, and really, if you’re paying attention the first time through, you should be able to predict what’s going to happen. There’s a difference between being predictable and having a set up twist that pays off at the end, and this film certainly showcases the ladder.
Another thing I really liked in this film was the acting. I find Tim Robbins is genuinely really great in most things I’ve seen him in. He’s soft spoken and withdrawn, almost thoughtful in this role. He feels like a man who knows he’s unwinding and doesn’t know what he can do about it. His facial expressions, reactions to frightening things, and the deliverance of his dialogue help make this movie more dreamlike and atmospheric. I really doubt this would’ve been as great of a film without him. There are a few other actors who did remarkably well in this film too. I had completely forgotten that Jason Alexander (“The Hunchback of Notre Dame”) was in this film- he was fine- but there are some other notable performances specifically from Pruitt Taylor Vince (“Identity”), who plays an old war buddy of Jacob’s, and Elizabeth Pena (“The Incredibles”), who plays Jacob’s girlfriend. Ving Rhames (“Mission Impossible”) also makes an appearance.
I really enjoy the effects in this movie; everything from the prosthetics to the way some of the creatures/beings move is creepy. The prosthetics bring flavors of Cronenberg body-horror stuff, while the movements and some of the less extravagant creature designs actually remind me of a newer horror franchise: "Silent Hill”. I actually went so far to see if the creators of the franchise acknowledged the similarities, and found that one of the producers of the “Silent Hill” game franchise, Akihiro Imamura, sited Jacob's Ladder as one of his favorite films; it just goes to show how a good film can not only influence other cinema, but the culture around us too. The creatures in this film shudder at lightening fast speed, blurring their faces and distorting their features in truly terrifying ways. If there’s one thing this movie is, it’s unsettling, and ninety percent of that has to do with the shock value of the creatures and not being able to tell what’s truly going on.
This is a truly great horror thriller, one that keeps you guessing and engaged through the whole film. But more than that, it’s a movie you could return to multiple times and still be surprised. If you only decide to watch one film from our 31 Nights of Thrills series, this one would be a great one to choose.
This is part of our 31 Nights of Thrills Series. Not all of the movies we review for this series will be strictly horror, but all will have something to do with the spirit of things spooky or scary. If you like those types of movies, be sure to check back throughout the month of October!
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