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Jacob's Ladder
Directed by Adrian Lyne
Produced by Alan Marshall
Bruce Joel Rubin
Written by Bruce Joel Rubin
Starring Tim Robbins
Elizabeth Peña
Danny Aiello
Jason Alexander
Ving Rhames
Music by Maurice Jarre
Cinematography Jeffrey L. Kimball
Editing by Tom Rolf
Distributed by TriStar Pictures
Release date(s) November 2, 1990
Running time 115 mins
Country United States
Language English
Budget $25 million[1]

Jacob's Ladder is a 1990 psychological thriller / horror film directed by Adrian Lyne, based on a screenplay by Bruce Joel Rubin. It stars Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Peña, Danny Aiello, and Jason Alexander. Actor Macaulay Culkin appears in an uncredited performance.

In 2010 producer Alison Rosenzweig has struck a deal with New Line Cinema for a remake of Jacob's Ladder.[citation needed]



Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) is a U.S. soldier deployed in the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam War. When the story begins, helicopters are passing overhead, carrying supplies for what seems to be preparations for a big Viet Cong offensive. Without any warning, Jacob's unit comes under fire. The soldiers try to take cover but begin to exhibit strange behavior for no apparent reason. Jacob attempts to escape the unexplained insanity, only to be bayonetted by an unseen enemy.

The film then shifts back and forth from Vietnam to Jacob's memories (and hallucinations) of his son Gabe (Macaulay Culkin, uncredited) and former wife Sarah (Patricia Kalember), and to his present (set in 1975 Brooklyn) relationship with a woman named Jezebel (Elizabeth Peña) in New York City. During this latter period, Jacob faces several threats to his life and has severe hallucinatory experiences. It is subsequently revealed that his son Gabe was hit by a car and killed before Jacob went to Vietnam. At a key moment, Jacob's friend, chiropractor and guardian angel Louis (Danny Aiello), cites the 14th century Christian mystic Meister Eckhart—"Eckhart saw Hell too; he said: 'the only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won't let go of life, your memories, your attachments. They burn them all away. But they're not punishing you,' he said. 'They're freeing your soul. So, if you're frightened of dying and... you're holding on, you'll see devils tearing your life away. But if you've made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the earth.'"

As the hallucinations become increasingly bizarre, Jacob learns about chemical experiments performed on U.S. soldiers in Vietnam. One of his old army buddies is killed in a car ignition explosion. At the funeral, his surviving platoon-mates confess to Jacob they too have been seeing horrible hallucinations. Jacob is then approached by a man named Michael Newman (Matt Craven), who claims to have been a chemist working with the Army's chemical warfare division in Saigon where he worked on creating a drug that would increase aggression in soldiers. Tests of the drug (code-named "The Ladder" in reference to how it takes people straight to their primal urges) were first performed on monkeys and then on a group of enemy POWs with gruesome results. Later, small doses of "The Ladder" were secretly given to Jacob's fellow soldiers via their C-rations. Instead of targeting the enemy, however, the men in Jacob's unit attacked each other indiscriminately. This revelation insinuates that Jacob was stabbed by one of his fellow soldiers.

At the denouement, we learn Jacob never made it out of Vietnam; his body is shown in an army triage tent just as he expires. Apparently, the entire series of events turns out to have been a dying hallucination. Jacob's experiences appear to have been a form of purgation in which he releases himself from his earthly attachments, finally joining his dead son Gabe to ascend a staircase (Biblically known as Jacob's Ladder) toward a bright light. (The idea of a whole plotline that is revealed to be a dying character's agonizing vision has been used extensively in recent time cinema. Examples include "The I Inside", "Stay" and "Danika".) Before the film credits, an on-screen title card states that the U.S. Army allegedly experimented with a hallucinogenic drug called BZ, a claim denied by the Pentagon.



"The Ladder"

Jacob is told that the horrific events he experienced on his final day in Vietnam were the product of an experimental drug called "The Ladder", which was used on troops without their knowledge. This is an ambiguous element in the film, particularly since Jacob is given the information by a character who may not exist. He is told that the drug was named for its ability to cause "a fast trip straight down the ladder, right to the primal fear, right to the base anger." Although the name "The Ladder" also has a metaphorical and religious significance beyond this, it is notable that the film begins in a subway station and ends on a staircase.

At the end of the film, a message is displayed mentioning the testing of a drug named BZ, NATO code for a deliriant and hallucinogen known as 3-quinuclidinyl benzilate that was rumored to have been administered to U.S. troops by the government in a secret attempt to increase their fighting power. The effects of BZ, however, are different from the effects of the drug depicted in the film. Director Adrian Lyne himself noted that "nothing ... suggests that the drug BZ—a super-hallucinogen that has a tendency to elicit maniac behavior—was used on U.S. troops."[2]

Innovative effects

Director Adrian Lyne uses a body horror technique in which an actor is recorded waving his head around at a low frame rate, resulting in horrific fast motion when played back. In an interview the director said he was inspired by the art of Francis Bacon when developing the effect. Filmmakers have since achieved the effect by digitally removing frames from footage shot at a normal rate.[citation needed]

This effect is one of the signature animation techniques developed by The Brothers Quay and used extensively in their short films, including Street of Crocodiles (1986), based on the short novel of the same name by the Polish author and artist Bruno Schulz. The horror videogame franchise Silent Hill borrows this technique in the second, third and fourth sequels of the game, although it is not seen in the Silent Hill movie. Other films to use the "fast-head" motion include Stir of Echoes, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, The Ring, Oldboy, Trauma (2004), House on Haunted Hill (1999), Lost Highway, Lost Souls, The Amityville Horror (2005), The Deaths of Ian Stone, recently Mirrors and the Saw series, as well as some videogames like Thief: Deadly Shadows and Painkiller.

The effect also appears in an episode of the television series Supernatural and in the The X-Files episode "Requiem". The music videos for "Stupify" by Disturbed, the Linkin Park song "Papercut", "Payback" by Flaw, Marilyn Manson's cover of "Personal Jesus", "UHF" by "Weird Al" Yankovic, "Scorched Earth Erotica" by Cradle of Filth, K.I.N.G. by Satyricon, Train of Consequences by Megadeth, "Helpless Corpses Enactment" by Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, "Sober" by Tool (actually directed by the Brothers Quay) and Doctor Who "The End of Time" also use the technique.


The title of the film refers to the biblical story of Jacob's ladder, or the dream of a meeting place between Heaven and Earth (Genesis 28:12). The earliest literary antecedent appears in Don Juan Manuel's Libro de los ejemplos del conde Lucanor y de Patronio ("Book of the examples of Count Lucanor and of Patronio"), chapter XI[3], in which a life happens in an instant (1337). This story was rewritten by Jorge Luis Borges in the short story "The Wizard Postponed" in his book A Universal History of Infamy (1935). A similar dying hallucination occurs in Borges' short story The Secret Miracle (1944).

The movie's events can be interpreted as the wanderings of an unknowing soul through purgatory, or as a lengthy delirious hallucination prior to death. Director Robert Enrico used a similar concept for his 1962 film short An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, based on Ambrose Bierce's 1886 short story, and which appeared on American television as a 1964 episode of the fantasy-anthology series The Twilight Zone.

The film is also viewed by many, including the screenwriter, as a modern interpretation of Bardo Thodol, the Tibetan Book of the Dead.[2]

In the film, when Jacob Singer unfolds an old Army discharge certificate, the service number "US 21 719 365" can briefly be seen. This would correspond to a National Guard service number with a prefix indicating follow-on conscription into the Army of the United States. According to U.S Army records, the service number seen in the film was assigned to a soldier named Thomas K. Wright, who served from 1959 to 1961 with discharge as a Specialist Fourth Class.[4] Thomas Wright would later become the property master for the film Jacob's Ladder, using his own service number for the scene where the discharge certificate is briefly visible on camera.[5]

See also


  1. ^ Jacob's Ladder (1990/I)
  2. ^ a b Adrian Lyne Met A Metaphysical Challenge, Seattle Times, November 1, 1990
  3. ^ [1]
  4. ^ United States Army Human Resource Command, Freedom of Information Act material, obtained October 2009
  5. ^ Screen Actors Guild, "Listing of Property Masters and Set Producers" (1993)

External links


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