Video rental stores were an important fixture of my childhood. Even when I couldn’t afford to rent anything, I loved browsing the shelves and studying the covers on the plastic DVD cases. By far the most intriguing section was the horror aisle. One DVD I returned to time and time again was Jacob’s Ladder. The cover was simple: Tim Robbins’ distorted face, his expression pained, floating in a black void. The only Jacob’s Ladder I knew about at the time was the impossible carnival game I had attempted at the Renaissance Fair. The visual combined with the connotation of the title evoked a feeling of hopelessness, that whoever this man was, he was dealing with something far beyond his grasp.
This assumption was right, as it turns out. Jacob’s Ladder is an exploration of hopelessness and dread. Since my Blockbuster days, it has become one of my most beloved movies. It might be strange to consider it a comfort movie, but whenever I have a bad day, I put it on and think “Well, at least I’m not Jacob Singer”.
Jacob Singer, a veteran of the Vietnam war, begins experiencing strange and disturbing things: being locked in a subway station, getting followed by black cars, and, most haunting of all, plagued by visions of monstrous creatures. His memories of the war are tied up with bizarre demons who haunt him. He eventually discovers that something happened to not only him, but to his whole platoon during the war: something that irrevocably altered their minds.
Jacob’s story actually borrows from real life events. The Edgewood Experiments, carried out from 1948 to 1975, involved testing chemical weapons on US soldiers, by US soldiers. Drugs such as LSD were administered to soldiers without their full knowledge, and once the doors shuttered on Edgewood for good, there were very few attempts to provide followup care. Soldiers did not have proper medical or psychological attention provided to them following the end of experiments, and many were left with severe psychological scars.
This is just one of the many threads that makes the film so complex. The religious overtones make you question whether the monsters pursuing Jacob are memories of the war or biblical demons come to collect his soul. Jacob’s grief for his son colors his every memory. Are his visions products of PTSD, a symptom of a deeper illness, or are they real? Have Jacob Singer’s sins been made flesh, and seek only his torment? It’s these questions that spur on the ever-growing dread that this film captures so perfectly.
Jacob’s Ladder is a horror gem, showcasing a gruesome cast of monsters and horrific scenarios. Despite being a major influence for the beloved Silent Hill video game franchise, I can’t help but feel as if this film has faded from the minds of horror fans. And as Jacob Singer will tell you, forgetting can be a very dangerous thing… –Audrey Griffin