31 Days of Horror – October 18th – “Jacob’s Ladder”

I don’t know if I decided on this one because the last couple nights have just been awful films or if it was just time to throw this one in the rotation but I’m very glad this was tonight’s film. This one is similar to The Prophecy as it’s been on that “To Watch” list for years and years now. The thing about it is it’s definitely one of those movies that you have to be really intentional in deciding to watch. It’s not a movie you just casually decide to throw on. Everything about this movie is some kind of intense but it works on so many levels.

Jacob’s Ladder IMDb

The first thing about this movie I had to reconcile is my overwhelming lack of real working knowledge about the Vietnam War. There’s so many aspects about it that I just don’t have a real perspective on when it comes right down to it. It spans a time where there was a significant amount of change in so many arenas of public life. When you think anecdotally about life in 1955 and life in 1975 they are two whole different pictures. Personally I have windows into this time frame through various aspects of popular culture, family history and a general knowledge of the world but sitting here watching this movie I am confronted by how much of this military escapade is a mystery to me. I know in the decades that followed the end of the war there was a significant influx of mental health issues with veterans of this war. And really that’s a big focus of this film. The movie does a fantastic job of keeping the viewer in our own form of mental anguish as we try and reconcile what is real and what is not in the same way that Tim Robbins “Jacob” does in the film. There are parts that seem wholly “real” and other’s that I believe are meant to be fully surreal. However, I would submit that there is no clear boundary at any given time that allows you to fully know how much of what you are enduring is based in an actual grasp on reality. I know 1990 was a solid 15 years after the end of the war but I do feel like this is the time frame that many soldiers would be adjusting to midlife and the demands the really does contain for most men in their 30’s and 40’s. And living in 2023 where there is a better focus on things like mental health (still far from what it should be ideally, however) framed against this world of 1990 where our title character is experiencing this slow fade into madness is a fairly stark contrast. This provides an excellent backdrop for a well made horror film that feels somewhat ahead of it’s time.

I couldn’t help but draw some similarities between this movie and the John Carpenter 1994 classic “In the Mouth of Madness”. Both films deal with the protagonist delving into a world of increasingly horrific imagery plaguing their waking and sleeping lives. What I have to give credit to Jacob’s Ladder is that this film is driven by something far more rooted in a realistic backdrop instead of a world that is purely fictional. Tim Robbins delivers a phenomenal performance as Jacob, a mailman who appears to be mostly existing in his own story of life. He’s a veteran who has seen and experienced some incredibly horrific things in his time of service. The flashes he experiences between reality, fantasy, and memory are divided by blurred lines at best. Robbins portrayal balances all of this well. When he’s enjoying his reality, he seems happy and content. When he’s having good dreams about his life before the war, he feels cogent and satisfied. When he’s flashing back to Vietnam he’s confused and terrified. And when he’s in those nightmarish spaces in between, his madness is palpable. The fact that these scene intersect so frequently and at times quite viciously only further feeds the mania. One moment he could be riding high in reality and only moments later he’s writhing in agony somewhere in that space betwixt the two. Past and present battling it out for space in his conscious mind, attempting to deal with the horrors he experienced in both. The death of his son Gabe is a terrific ache he will never truly be able to free himself from as the pain stalks his memories. The intensity of the violence he experienced in Vietnam that comes in these vignettes as he tries to make sense of it all. Meanwhile the world around him seems to be filled with religious imagery of demons and creatures that are attacking his failing grasp on reality. The scenes in this film between Robbins and the uncredited Macauly Culkin as his son Gabe are tremendously emotion. Once again highlighting the impressive abilities that Culkin possessed at a very early age. For this being a legitimate horror movie, there were a number of times it elicited a genuinely emotional response to it all.

I let this movie play for a while before I started in on a review of the experience. I think that’s what this whole endeavor is really about. These aren’t necessarily just reviews of the films. I know it’s a component of it and it can be a pretty big part of it in the end. But ultimately when I review a movie I think I have to come at it from the perspective of the entire experience for me. I know a lot of people will speak solely about the film and evaluate it on it’s merits alone. And I do try and have some modicum of objectivity at times when I’m commenting on how a movie is assembled. If the writing was good or bad. Did the music enhance or detract from the film. Was the acting compelling or dismal. There are distinct components to the film that can make it enjoyable or miserable. But that’s still somewhat subjective. Being in the MovieTok world as much as I’ve invested, I’ve come to really appreciate that opinions on just about everything will range. Movies you thought were sacred and loved by all can find objectors that actually make sound points at times. It doesn’t take away from your love of the film but I find that I can’t simply dismiss the way a film hit someone. I don’t typically take it personally as I still like what I like regardless of how someone else feels. But it does still surprise me when I come across opinions some people have on certain films at times. I also like to think that by adding in my personal experience in the film that it hopefully lends a certain relatability. I know it’s cheesy but I was just thinking about it last night as I watched the new trailer for Wonka again that one of my favorite things about movie is the magic. I believe that. Movies are one of the places I truly feel like actual magic does still exist. You can watch a film and get to enjoy a piece of that in the moment. I know there are people who would staunchly disagree and would even point out how much they want to vomit at the notion of having to sit through the new Wonka film. I simply feel bad for them because to me, that magic is real. As much as Santa Claus is on Christmas Eve. Movies do that for me. And being able to genuinely enjoy a world somebody else created, even in this unfortunately twisted dichotomy presented in Jacob’s Ladder, I enjoy that for a couple of hours I exist in a world I had not formerly been a party to. I get to walk through the heartache with Jacob Singer. I feel his pain. I experience his fear. I laugh with him. I cry with him. He is a very real person for the time I’m watching this film and when it’s over, it comes together in a story well told. I wish for that experience to be what everyone can take away from any movie they see. I watch happy movies to enjoy the warmth of happiness. I watch sad movies to commiserate with those who mourn. I watch action movies to feel like I can conquer the world. I watch comedies to laugh and be silly. Not every movie lands perfectly. But when you get transported to a place perhaps you’ve never been or maybe it’s so familiar you’ve been there 1,000 times before, it doesn’t matter because it’s this whole other place you get to be for a short while. You get to live a different story. And when it’s over, you have your feelings about the experience you had. They’re not wrong. They’re not right. They’re yours. And when those feelings are satisfying, I want others to be able to enjoy that experience, whatever it may be, in a similar fashion. At 40 years old now and a dad of two, I get emotional all the time. My kids are always watching for it. Partially because I think they are curious about it. I’ll get teary eyed at sad things. But I’ll also experience that elation that comes from watching Hook and remembering what it was like to be 9 again. Part of it may be longing for those simpler days again but part of it is also the fact that I get to share that magic with my boys and now they have it too. So it lives on. It’s funny to think all of this could be experienced in Jacob’s Ladder but in the closing moments of the film, it was a genuinely beautiful experience that brought the entire thing together in a wonderful fashion. I’m always going to be a sucker for a happy ending. It’s just my nature. And even that, there’s still some duality in whether or not I’d straight up classify the ending of this film as happy. But as the credits rolled, I could tangibly feel the remnants of that magical feeling that movies have for me. That’s why I do this. I hope that these words that trickle down from my head through my arms into my fingers and onto this screen make their way to your eyes and into your brain. I hope you read this experience and it makes you curious. I hope that curiosity takes root and it causes you to watch this movie. And in the end I hope you enjoy this movie as much as I do. Because I found it to be refreshing. The scary parts were truly off putting and fear inducing. They weren’t jump scares necessarily. The imagery was rife with various creature like beings flashed in amongst other disturbing and fearful images at times. This really worked to create that panic. But the balance of moments that felt peaceful helped keep everything in this homeostasis that made the film that much more enjoyable to me.

Well I’ve officially gone on my long winded tear. I’ve had my soap box and it’s time to bring it home. I don’t need to go into much more detail on the movie. I loved the supporting cast. Danny Aiello was probably my favorite of them all as he seemed to be a sort of guardian angel at times. A brief on screen appearance by a very young Lewis Black was fun as well. Ving Rhames is always fun in just about everything he does and knowing his dialogue with Robbins in the opening Vietnam scene was improvised is even better. Elizabeth Pena as Jezzie was perfect. She was equal parts lovingly supportive and dismissively rejecting to create another avenue where things teetered back and forth on an unforgiving spectrum. Finally I’ll note Pruitt Taylor Vince. I’ve only ever seen him in a handful of places, typically in horror movies of a religious nature. Probably most prominently I remember him for his role as a sort of apprentice to John Constantine in the film “Constantine”. He’s got that crazy look about him that he capitalizes on well here. Even at his demise in the film there was an odd sort of peace on his face as he seemed to know he was going to die but he welcomed it. I’d love to see this movie get a 4K restoration. Normally I don’t get too much into that technical aspect of film watching but as of late I’ve paid a little more attention to some of these older horror movies that have gotten 4K restorations and how it really does impact the presentation of the film in a positive way. Presently I don’t believe there is one as I’ve already added this film to my Amazon cart, much like C.H.U.D. It was an easy, immediate add to the collection. So I definitely recommend it. I’ll go so far as to give this one a 7.5. There’s not a lot I’d take away from it but I just know it’s not a perfect film so I have to account for that. 7.5 does seem fair and that is definitely on the high end for me. This is one of the better movies I’ve watched in a while and would probably recommend it the most out of anything I’ve seen thus far this October. And it’s on that note that I believe I’ve fully exhausted everything I could say about this movie so we’ll cut it off here. Until the next time, I’ll catch you on the flip side.

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