Next week marks the 25th anniversary of one of the most fascinating, haunting, yet widely overlooked horror movies ever made.
Starring Tim Robbins as a Vietnam War veteran suffering disturbing, nightmarish visions in the gloomy streets and underbelly of New York, Adrian Lyne’s cult 1990 chiller Jacob’s Ladder is one of the most downright unnerving films you’re ever likely to see.
It’s that rarest of things: a legitimate arthouse horror movie with a pure psychological focus, fully immersing us in the warped ordeal of Jacob Singer as he contends with outlandish hallucinations, and experiences mounting paranoia, amid a bleak urban landscape.
Is he in hell, or purgatory? Is he the victim of a government conspiracy? The mystery deepens, in tandem with the maddening descent.
The movie’s imagery and creatures are inspired by the works of Francis Bacon; with grotesque, deformed humanoid beings appearing to Jacob, and tormenting him at every turn.
Some evoke the horrors of Vietnam’s victims, with limbless or headless figures jerking and shambling in subterranean tunnels. Others are more threatening embodiments of persecution; not least the eyeless, demon-like doctors who loom over him during one particularly terrifying sequence.
Lyne also adopted the innovative technique of filming certain ‘monsters’ writhing at a low frame rate – so when played back at normal speed their contortions are unnaturally, horrifyingly fast. Creepy isn’t the word.
Perhaps the film’s greatest triumph from a horror perspective is its effortless blurring of seemingly normal, everyday scenes and locations into sudden outpourings of skin-crawling fear and dark, dream-like scares – the ‘party’ scene being perhaps the most obvious example of this.
It’s something that few, save for the rarefied likes of David Lynch, are capable of convincingly pulling off, and rarely has the approach been utilized so relentlessly.
There’s a theme of real-life tragedy forcing the human mind into a state of feverish, surreal imagination; blending what is real, and what is not, and the result is an experience that’s both a powerful, poignant character study of one man’s deepest, darkest subconscious, and a rumination on our feelings regarding the gateway between life and death itself.
Suffice it to say, it’s well-worth your time if you’ve never seen it before, and well-worth re-visiting even if you have.
Moreover, it’s important to acknowledge the significant widespread impact and influence that Jacob’s Ladder has had on a generation of creative minds in the worlds of film, TV and even video games, despite its under-the-radar status. Lyne’s film is one of those works that remains unseen by many, but has greatly inspired those who have seen it.
Some of the most high-profile, zeitgeist capturing hits of the ’90s and more recent years owe a debt to Jacob’s Ladder.
It’s hard to imagine M Night Shyamalan’s breakout sensation The Sixth Sense existing without it, exploring as it does the same kinds of thematic elements around death and mortality, and the quite literal haunting of the central protagonist by ghoulish apparitions that rudely intrude into their daily, domestic life, unseen by others.
Darren Aronofksy’s own influential and innovative arthouse project Requiem For A Dream seems to be mired in shades of Lyne’s box of directorial tricks, while his Oscar-nominated Black Swan explores similar psychological territory with its subway phantoms, absurdist body-horror and tale of an unsettled, sad-eyed loner confronted by taunting, monstrous manifestations.
It may also interest you to know that the creators of Silent Hill – one of the most atmospheric, gripping and downright pant-wetting video game series of all time – cite Jacob’s Ladder as a prominent and crucial influence on their work.
You can see it in the games’ fiendish, twisted creature designs and their jerky jittery movement; the look and feel of the grimy, dread-filled ‘otherworld’, lying side-by-side with dingy streets and tenements; and the similar themes of disturbed, guilt-ridden protagonists trapped in a kind of purgatorial waking nightmare.
Silent Hill’s titles have some of the deepest sub-text in the whole of video games, with regards to their characters’ stories, behaviour and the Freudian symbolism that surrounds them, and those elements would likely not exist without the legacy of Jacob’s Ladder.
In television, that ’90s sci fi behemoth The X-Files boasts several episodes seemingly in debt to the film’s ideas and approach – most notably ‘Grotesque’ and ‘Folie A Deux’ – whereby a sense of urban claustrophobia and paranoia collide with disturbing, unhinged visions in the everyday.
More recently, grisly TV sensation American Horror Story has drawn on the movie’s potent visual style and dread-inducing concepts to vivid effect. Second season Asylum became filled with the kind of filthy basement hospital surroundings and unsettling breaks with reality that served the movie so well, while current season Hotel shows off a pale, featureless mutant figure who might have been plucked straight out of Lyne’s startling gallery of freaks. Lurking in wait to torment unfortunate ‘guests’, and captured in short, sharp bursts of frantic movement, the eyeless, mouthless fiend nods to the 25-year-old creation with morbid glee.
Ladder’s influence even stretches to the world of music, with countless artists from the alternative spectrum sampling its words, score and sound effects.
UNKLE and Thom Yorke’s haunting song ‘Rabbit In Your Headlights’ is directly inspired by the film, drawing its title from a key line of dialogue and also including a speech from the movie just after the 2-minute mark (the ‘devils and angels’ one – an important thematic point).
It’s hard to think of another horror movie that has had such an enduring and profound impact on so many different entertainment mediums – especially one which has not, to any great extent, itself permeated the wider public consciousness.
Jacob’s Ladder is obscure enough to pass most folk by, yet powerful enough to leave a lasting impression on many of those who watch it.
An influential creation that continues to inspire people decades on, you could do far worse than check it out this Halloween.
Just try not to have nightmares…