Climbing Jacob's Ladder 9/2

This past Labor Day weekend was a big event here in Rockford; not only does the city close down the downtown area for “the area’s largest music festival”, On the Waterfront (this year featuring such acts as Pat Benatar, Ted Nugent, SheDaisy, Buddy Guy and hometown boys Cheap Trick), but we also had a large storm front stall out on us on Monday which produced 10 inches of rain and two funnel clouds! The result of so much rain resulted in backed up storm drains and massive flooding all across the southeast section of the city. We had flooded streets and parking lots so bad that firefighters had to rescue motorists from floating cars, some of which sported water levels up to the rear-view mirror!

I remained blissfully unaware of all of this activity, as Satanica and I avoided the crush of crowds On the Waterfront and holed up in the basement to watch movies all day Monday during the deluge. It didn’t really bother us until the power went out around 6pm, cutting off the operation of the sump pump. We spent the next couple of hours bailing water out of the quickly filling well until power was restored. We were lucky, it seems, as we first caught a glimpse at how badly the area had been hit on the 10pm news.

On Saturday night, we invited the usual gang of cronies over for Jacob’s Ladder. Oh, that reminds me – I never did mention the final BMW short movie, which we watched prior to the last Freak Show. Titled Beat the Devil, the film starred (in addition to Clive Owen, as The Driver) Gary Oldman as Old Scratch, and James Brown as himself. Turns out that JB sold his soul years ago in exchange for his music career. But now that age has begun to take a toll on his ability to dance around the stage and do the splits, he wants to re-negotiate his contract. Tony Scott directs in a hyperactive style of multiple exposures, sped-up and slowed-down film speeds, subtitles for emphasis (even though the characters are speaking English), and samples of two dozen or so musical selections. Scott would subsequently utilize this form of filmmaking on his features Man on Fire and Domino. The show is owned by Oldman in a fright wig, lipstick and tights as the slimy Devil; he challenges Brown to a drag race at dawn, winner take all. The short film proved to be the most memorable of the set of eight BMW films.

This week’s short film was called The Separation from animator Robert Morgan. The ten-minute film features stop motion animation in the story of conjoined twins who undergo an operation to separate them. Over time, one of the twins seems to suffer separation anxiety even while the two of them live and work closely together making stuffed dolls. Eventually, he proposes building a machine that will sew the two of them together, but a tragic accident leaves him permanently deformed, without sight, speech or limbs. The short ends with the twins in the waiting room of the hospital where the story began, awaiting the procedure that will join them once more. The film features no dialogue but manages to evoke dread, horror and pathos in its brief running time, due in no small part to the design of the puppet characters – with their translucent skin, delicate frames and expressive eyes. The film is recommended, along with most of the others on the Small Gauge Trauma collection from Synapse Films, for fans of experimental and animated cinema.

Our feature presentation for the night was Jacob’s Ladder, which had been suggested by Ensign Harry Kim last month. I had seen the film initially in the theater where I had worked during high school, and it had left me filled with despair, horror, unease, confusion and the sense that I had seen the first real horror film of the 1990’s (the film was released in 1990 following a glut of slasher films and sequels), one that traded in psychological and metaphysical shocks rather than earthly killers and monsters. It had been many years since I had seen the film, and was anticipating this revisit. Now here I have to post a massive spoiler warning – I am going to ruin the movie for you if you haven’t seen it – because to discuss the film at all, I have to expose the revelations of its plot.

The film tells the story of Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins), a soldier in Vietnam who’s platoon comes under attack and who himself is speared in the gut by the enemy’s bayonet. We are led to believe that flashbacks from the Vietnam event – his discovery by Army troops, and the subsequent air-lift to a M.A.S.H. unit – are memories permeating his post-war life as a postal carrier in New York City. In the supposed “present day” events, which take place in a New York City subtly stuck in the 1970’s (no 1990’s era technology is seen), Singer lives with a co-worker named Jezebel (Elizabeth Pena). We find out that has a doctorate but didn’t pursue that life because after Vietnam he “didn’t want to think anymore”; is divorced from his first wife, Sarah (Patricia Kalember); and had three children, one of which, Gabe (Macaulay Culkin), died in a bicycle accident. The other main character in his life is his chiropractor, Louis (Danny Aiello), whom Jacob mentions “looks like an angel”.

Jacob is immediately plagued by visions of “demons” as he refers to them. On a subway, he spies a sleeping bum with a tail; a subway car seems full of spectral figures all pressed up against the windows to look at him; he sees strange, faceless creatures in the backseats of cars; and at a party, a palm reader explains that his lifeline suggests that he’s already dead; at the same party, he envisions Jezzie having sex with a creature with leathery wings and a tail. It is after this party that Jacob collapses into an illness that requires a painful-to-witness ice bath; subsequent to this, he awakens in bed with his first wife, Sarah, and his children are all alive. Reality shifts again to life with Jezzie, who begins to show resentment at his long recovery time and obsession with his demonic visions. He is contacted by another member of his platoon (Pruit Taylor Vince) who also claims to see demons coming out of the woodwork and is soon after killed in a fiery car explosion. Jacob meets with his surviving platoon mates, all of whom seem to be suffering similar hallucinations, and becomes convinced that the government did something to them. They contact a lawyer (Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander) who refuses to take their case because, according to the official record, Singer’s platoon never saw action in Vietnam. Then, his Army buddies suddenly want nothing to do with him.

Soon after, Jacob is harassed by what appear to be either Mafia thugs or CIA muscle and thrown out of a car; he is taken to a hospital which holds some of the darkest imagery in the film, with grimy, blood spattered halls, bits and pieces of body parts laying about, deranged inmates screaming from all corners – it is a vision of hell on earth. In an operating room (with Jezzie present), a doctor informs Jacob that he is dead and "belongs here”, despite Jacob’s insistence that he is alive. He is rescued from the hospital of the damned by Louis, who explains to him that to someone who is clinging to their earthly existence they will see demons stripping their life away – but to someone who has made their peace with death, the demons are really angels freeing them from the world.

After this, Jacob encounters a chemist who explains what really happened during the opening Vietnam battle – that his platoon had been fed a powerful drug called “The Ladder” which targets human aggression. The platoon did not come under attack from the Viet Cong, but from themselves – and they “tore each other to pieces”. After gaining this knowledge, Jacob returns “home” to his penthouse apartment where he focuses on his dead son, who appears. Gabe takes his dad by the hand and tells him “let’s go up”, leading him up the stairs to a blinding light. The film cuts back to Vietnam, where Jacob has died on the operating table.

The film conjures up memories of Carnival of Souls or the short film An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, and later The Sixth Sense or The Others, all films in which the lead character dies at the beginning of the film and exists in another plane until their death is revealed to the audience at the end of the film. Instead of taking place in Jacob’s mind, Jacob’s Ladder seems to work on a more metaphysical level, seen as the journey into death that the soul might make. The film abounds with religious references and iconography, as all the main characters in Jacob’s life, Louis excluded, have biblical names. Jezebel (her biblical namesake is known as the mother of harlots and abomination) is a demonic character who’s purpose seems to be to keep Jacob tethered to reality, and thus suffering. Louis is a healing presence who gives Jacob insight and wisdom.

I suppose the film could be read a different way, as the inclusion of the Chemist offers information that the dying man could not have had access to, and a closing title card alludes to a supposedly real case of military experimentation of drug warfare on its own troops in Vietnam.

The film is oppressively bleak in both its visual design and its atmosphere, and leading man Robbins successfully navigates a role that bears virtually nothing but psychic torment, pain and misery. The case could also be made that Jacob’s Ladder is one of the most influential, but least acknowledged, horror films of the 1990’s. It’s bleak, urban visual landscapes are a possible forerunner to Se7en’s dilapidated production design; the kinetic motion of the demons – a visual effect that involves a shaking head moving at inhuman speed – has been used in subsequent films such as House on Haunted Hill and music videos; and the hospital imagery must have directly influenced the design of the world of Silent Hill.

There are two scenes deleted from the film which are noteworthy as both being included on some television cuts of the film: one follows what happens when the Chemist offers Jacob a “cure” for the Ladder which causes him to hallucinate a slimy, tentacled beast crashing through the apartment’s ceiling in a rain of blood (another sequence that wouldn't be out of place in Silent Hill); and another, at the finale, where Jacob confronts Jezebel – her eyes all black – where she seems to transform into the winged creature with whom she cavorted on the dance floor (symbolizing the Devil?) before revealing the face of Jacob himself beneath.

Directed by Adrian Lyne, of Flashdance and Fatal Attraction fame, the film employs no traditional visual effects, instead opting to pull off its demonic visions through live-on-set makeups and in-camera tricks. The screenplay, by Bruce Joel Rubin (who’s entire cinematic career has been centered on exploring death and the dying process in Ghost, this and My Life with Michael Keaton), is filled with more explicit visions of heaven and hell which would no doubt be easy to pull off in this day and age of CGI (one thinks of What Dreams May Come), but could doubtfully be as effective as the low-tech approach here.

Also, on this viewing, it was interesting to note what other soon to be stars appeared in the film, besides a young, pre-Home Alone Macaulay Culkin and pre-Seinfeld Jason Alexander; Eriq LaSalle went on to star in TV’s E.R. before directing his own Jacob’s Ladder-ish film, Crazy as Hell; and Ving Rhames, who went on to stardom four years later in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.