Jacob’s Ladder (1990) [REVIEW]

jacob's ladder movie poster


Now that those bullshit holidays are over, it’s back to watching a variety of movies with no connection in theme or quality! FUCK YES! I must have seen the cover to this movie a thousand times back when I would rent horror movies on VHS at the local video place. I saw it and thought, “Wow, that looks stupid.” Eventually, as a mature (not really) adult, I gave it a shot through Netflix after finding so many positive reviews of it online. Although I do claim to have “seen” it, that’s not really true, because it was on my computer while also fucking around with some stupid bullshit, so I don’t think that really counts as having “seen” it. Sometimes I feel like I use quotes more often than I actually need to use them, but I can swear that I’m actually using finger quotes around my head when I’m typing them. How could I possibly type something at the same time as supposedly using my fingers around my head? Well, send a letter to MythBusters if you really care that much, because I sure as shit don’t.


jacob's ladder movie nurse no eyes needle

Who gave you your medical license, Matt Murdock?! Ya see, Matt Murdock is the real name of the Marvel character “Daredevil”, who was blinded in a terrible accident. To compensate for not being able to see, his other senses have been heightened, creating the superhero Daredevil. Wait, Matt Murdock’s a lawyer…I’ve fucked things up again.


Jacob (Tim Robbins) is just hanging out in Vietnam with some dudes, having a good time. Well, if you consider the Vietnam War to be a good time, then they are having the GOOD-EST of times. By the way, “goodest” isn’t a word. Anyways, they’re all bro-ing down in Vietnam when they come under fire. There’s blood and guns and helicopters, then we see Jacob wake up on a train. What we learn about Jacob is that he was in the Vietnam War, and like most people involved in it, it’s severely altered his mental stability, or rather, his instability. The viewer, along with Jacob, has a difficult time figuring out which of the things he sees are real and which are just part of the damage done to his brain. Whether it be visions of demons at a house party, constantly awaking from something he thinks to be a dream, to even imagining he’s in a Hell of being operated on by a doctor who is outright telling him he’s in Hell. Jacob soon finds out he’s not alone in these experiences, as some of his old infantry buddies come forward to say they’re experiencing the same thing, but those buddies start dying off, adding even more confusion to the whole thing. As a warning, there will be some spoilers in the next few sentences, do don’t read them unless you want the ending spoiled. Another person from Jacob’s military past finds Jacob and tells him he was involved in an experimental drug test of something called “The Ladder”, which supposedly heightened aggression in soldiers to make them more primal killers. The reason all of these hallucinations have been happening is the result of that drug. However, the experiences continue through the rest of the film, and Danny Aiello, who plays Jacob’s chiropractor, shares with him a theory from the 14th century, which is that when you die and go to Hell, the only thing that burns are the memories from your life that you’re holding onto. If you give up and free your soul, the “demons” are actually angels, making your passage to death more acceptable. It turns out that this is the case, as the movie ends with Jacob being pronounced dead while in Vietnam, and the whole movie was his final experiences.


jacob's ladder no legs mask

Who even NEEDS leg when you’ve got arms that huge!?

It’s tough to outright call this movie a “horror film”, as it feels like so much more than that. That’s not to say that horror films can’t be full of lots of awesome stuff, but I feel like saying it’s a horror movie might be a turn for some audiences. At the end of the movie, there’s a title card that mentions how much experimental drug testing took place on the soldiers in the Vietnam War. In that sense, it feels like the movie was a commentary on the impact the Vietnam War had on American soldiers, similar to the message behind First Blood. By the way, you know what movie I don’t really like? First Blood. Rambo basically punches a few cops, steals a dirtbike, and then runs into the woods like a psychopath. There’s lots of pointless violence, and it’s not until the end that Rambo gives a monologue about how America trained him to be a killer, sent him into the war, and now that he’s back, his country has turned its back on him and soldiers like him. Interesting message, yes, but it gets told with too much action to undermine the point. Anyways, in that respect, it doesn’t really feel like Jacob’s Ladder is your traditional horror film, as much as any other movie that have explored multiple genres and storytelling formats using violent or graphic imagery. I’d say that Full Metal Jacket is a movie that took non-traditional methods of conveying the horrors and atrocities of war, both physically and mentally. Is Full Metal Jacket a horror movie? Well, I sure as shit don’t think so. Wait, did I just use the phrase “sure as shit” twice in one review? Goddammit. Well, you can be sure as shit that I won’t do it again!


jacob's ladder movie tim robbins bath tub

“He’s been naked in that bath tub ever since we told him there wasn’t going to be a sequel called ‘2 Nothing 2 Lose 2’ “


Even though Jacob’s Ladder isn’t your traditional horror film, I wouldn’t question for a second that it’s a psychological thriller, which is a far more broad term. One big issue with movies that are psychological thrillers is that they tend to definitively say one way or another whether or not the stuff that the characters are experiencing are real or if they’re just imagining it. With a movie like Identity from a few years ago, halfway through the movie the audience learned that all of the characters getting killed at a motel were just inside one character’s head and they were all different aspects of his personality. Similarly, and more recently, a movie like Citadel planted the seed that the main character might be hallucinating that all little kids are demons after a group of them killed his wife, and the tension and fear comes from the viewers questioning that concept, only to reveal halfway through that the demons are real and he’s not hallucinating. Or John Carpenter’s latest directorial effort (if you want to say effort was involved), The Ward, which at least held out until the end of the film to reveal what the truth of the situation was. I wasn’t really surprised to find out what the ending of this movie was, as it never tried too hard to convince you one way or the other about what was real and what wasn’t. Some movies, after the reveal of real/imagined, cause you to go back and think “Well if it was all real, how could THIS have happened?” Luckily, Jacob’s Ladder is frantic and disjointed enough, and ends with enough of a definitive answer, that you don’t get angry about questioning certain scenes or sequences. Although, I do kind of wish that HAD planted some seeds as to whether things were real or not so that the ending would’ve had more of an impact. For example, was the whole drug thing really what caused Jacob to die, sending someone in his platoon to kill him in a rage-induced rampage, or was that just how detailed his dying moments were? Either way, I’d use this movie as a great example of how to do a psychological thriller, even if it’s not perfect.


Wolfman Moon Scale

three quarters moon

Amazon Blu-ray

2 responses to “Jacob’s Ladder (1990) [REVIEW]

  1. Nice essay and review. I actually hold this film in high regard since I had to study Rubin’s screenplay back during my film school days and I felt frustrated at times with how the story needed to unfold and at times it comes through in the movie but I still think it’s a strong entry in the genre. Good job! ( PS – I actually liked JC’s The Ward but don’t tell anyone ) 🙂

    • Cool! I’m glad I watched it again because I never really gave it the proper justice the first time I saw it. Also, nothing wrong with liking The Ward! I just tried avoiding giving away the ending of it in THIS review so people could have read the full one.

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