Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Friday, April 27, 2018

Director Report Card: Adrian Lyne (1990)

5. Jacob’s Ladder

After the massive commercial success of “Fatal Attraction,” Adrian Lyne could make any movie he wanted. After toying with “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” a notoriously troubled project, he moved on to Bruce Joel Rubin's screenplay “Jacob's Ladder.” Rubin's script had been circulating in Hollywood since the early eighties. Several filmmakers loved it but no studio was willing to finance the project. After Lyne came on-board, the production moved over to Carolco Pictures and the movie finally got made. Upon release in 1990, “Jacob's Ladder” received mixed reviews and middling box office. In the years since, it's been recognized as one of the best horror films of the decades.

Jacob Singer remembers Vietnam. Deployed in 1971, he was part of an infantry that saw and experienced strange behavior while in the Mekong Delta. In the time following the war, he would marry and father several children. The marriage ended when their youngest child was killed by an out-of-control car. But all of that was years ago. Jacob is now living in New York with his girlfriend, Jezebel, and working at the post office. He begins to experience strange visions of demonic figures and wakes up in a different life. Attempts to reconnect with his war friends and figure out what happened in Vietnam only further drives Jacob into hell.

Though “Fatal Attraction” bordered the horror genre, “Jacob's Ladder” shows Adrian Lyne making a full-blown horror picture. The movie features three impressive sequences that can stand among the decade's scariest movie moments. One of the movie's earliest scenes begins this trend. Jacob awakens aboard a subway train. He sees a strange woman with a scarf around her head, who stares at him in an off-putting manner. A sleeping homeless man has his face covered, as if he's hiding something. This sets up a vague sense of unease, of things that look like people but aren't people. This continues during the sequence's climax, where Jacob wanders into a very spooky subway tunnel, is nearly hit by a train, and spots entities in the window that look like misshapen humans. Right away, there's a nightmarish sense of unreality and an underlying disquiet to “Jacob's Ladder.”

That sense of wrongness is further elaborated on when Jacob and his girlfriend are at a party. The jovial atmosphere is already undone by Jacob's clear discomfort at watching his girlfriend dance with another man. The scene next includes things that are creepy but ostensibly in the realm of reality: A decomposing animal head in the fridge, a black bird leaping suddenly from its cage. It's no mistake that the bird escapes its cage when things really start to turn disturbing. These omens of death and foreboding lead us to a horrific moment that suggests sexual violence, bodily discomfort, and demonic possession all at once. We never clearly see the creature that violates Jezebel, only flailing appendages that could be wings, tails, or horns. The subtle way Lyne slowly ups the horrific content makes it seem like the viewer is slipping into a nightmare or a hallucinogenic episode. Which is exactly what the protagonist is experiencing.

A similar tactic, a repetitive upping of the stakes, is employed in the film's most frightening sequence. As Jacob is wheeled into a hospital, defenseless and strapped to a gurney, the hospital around him becomes more and more disturbing. It starts out as merely dark, dirty, and disorganized. Raving inmates, self-harming and catatonic, are followed by the deformed and the demonic. And then the gurney rolls over bloody body parts on the floor. Lyne's camera spins around and around, following Jacob's perspective, as he sees his surroundings slide further into hell. The music is frantic and the imagery is nightmarish, combining to create a truly unnerving spectacle of horror.

“Jacob's Ladder” is not merely a cavalcade of creepy scenes though. The film was written in the early eighties and is partially set in the seventies. This was a time when the United States was still grappling with the traumatic aftereffects of the Vietnam War. Jacob is haunted throughout by memories of the war. Lyne will seamlessly cut from his starring eyes to a helicopter passing over a jungle. His dreams are filled with red-tinted images of soldiers marching through the underbrush. Jacob soon discovers that all his war buddies are having similarly disturbing visions. The spectre of PTSD, and the psychic scars inflicted on young men by a horrific war, forms the background of “Jacob's Ladder's” hellish visions.

However, the movie takes that mission a little too literally during an odd subplot. The veterans threaten the government with a class action lawsuit. Each one is talked out of it. Later, near the movie's end, we discover that the entire unit was drugged up with an ultra-powerful strain of LCD that created intensely violent tendencies. On one hand, this feeds into the film's themes about the scars of the sixties – war, drugs, Nixon who puts in a blink-and-miss-it cameo – still haunting people into the nineties. Yet the addition of a government conspiracy into a largely philosophical plot is a questionable one. It's the film's major flaw and feels like a rushed attempt to justify a dream-like narrative.

Because the horrors of “Jacob's Ladder” are ultimately not those of a war or a shadowy government. It's greatest agony is of a life unlived. An early scene has Jacob coming upon a photograph of his dead son and ex-wife. Reminders of these failures pepper the film, like a talk with his chiropractor or a shot of a wrecked bicycle. During one of the film's saddest sequences, he awakens from a fever into a world where his son still lives and he's still married. This is a home he might have had, if only things had been different. Regrets weigh heavily on the movie, portraying a mind haunted by literal demons but also mistakes, loss, and the always unfulfilled question of what might have been.

The title of “Jacob's Ladder” refers to both the name of the experimental drug in its backstory as well as the Biblical story of a ladder connecting heaven and Earth. It's one of many religious references layered throughout the story. None too subtly, upon awakening in the subway in the second scene, Jacob sees the word “HELL” written on a sign. His girlfriend, who dismisses religion early on, is named Jezebel. His dead son is named Gabriel. Jacob's feverishly staring eyes bring to mind catatonia, a religious awe, and a corpse. Inspired by Buddhist spiritualism and Dante's “Inferno,” the film is most prominently about leaving behind the pain and burdens of life in order to achieve peace. No wonder the story ends with Jacob ascending a literal stairway to heaven. The film's “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”-inspired ending is not just a cheap twist. It ties in completely with the story's themes, building towards this conclusion all along.

Director Lyne also employs willful anachronisms, making the story's specific time and place difficult to pin down. The dream like story bends around our protagonist, whose home and profession changes several time. These are two examples of how Lyne's skills have grown. “Jacob's Ladder” is his best directed movie yet. Lyne regarded New York City as a cultural artifact in “9 ½ Weeks” and “Fatal Attraction.” The visual approach here, which drapes the city in sickly browns and grays, turns the city into hell on Earth. Subterranean tunnels, far-off horizons, dingy bridges, and crowded apartment buildings are what characterizes Jacob Singer's waking world. Lyne's directorial approach, which becomes more frenzied during the nightmarish scenes, solidifies “Jacob's Ladder” status as a great film.

In a film as phantasmagorical as “Jacob's Ladder,” it's important to have a protagonist that can center an audience. Luckily, “Jacob's Ladder” has Tim Robbins. Robbins' everyman qualities are used fantastically here. Robbins' soft facial expressions and unimposing body language immediately paint Jacob singer as a normal guy, in far over his head. The audience latches onto him quickly, especially in the quiet scenes at home. Which is a good idea, since the film doesn't wait long to throw him into nightmarish situations. Robbins weeps, screams, and freaks out in every direction but never looses sight of the story's heart.

A strong overall cast gives Robbins plenty of support. Elizabeth Pena is excellent as Jezebel. She projects a likable, sensual attitude yet also makes it clear that she cares for her boyfriend. At the same time, Pena doesn't back away when the script makes her character a figure of fear or unease.  Danny Aiello is also excellent as Louis, Robbins' chiropractor and source of wisdom. Numerous recognizable faces, a bit before they became names, appear throughout the cast. Ving Rhames appears as one of Jacob's war buddies. An uncredited Macaulay Culkin, right before “Home Alone” made him a star, appears as Gabe, Singer's ill-fated son. Most surprising as small roles from Jason Alexander and Lewis Black, appearing as a sleazy lawyer and a doctor respectively.

Initial reactions to “Jacob's Ladder” were mixed. Test audiences, exposed to a longer and more harrowing cut of the film, were hostile. The film only broke even at the box office. Critics did not embrace the film immediately. In time, “Jacob's Ladder” would prove influential. His method of blurry-faced demons, heads spasmodically shaking at super speed, would be emulated by many lesser horror films and music videos. The film would prove a big influence on the “Silent Hill” video game series. Now, a loose remake is scheduled to come out next year. Despite the imitators, “Jacob's Ladder” has loss none of its startling power and graceful strength. It remains Adrian Lyne's best film. [Grade: A]

No comments: