FEATURE: Shocktober '15 - Jacob's Ladder

Over the course of October, I shall be watching one horror movie a day and reviewing it right here for your reading pleasure. I haven't seen any of the films I'll be watching before and you can find the full list here. 



Major spoilers ahead.

Jacob Singer is a Vietnam war veteran who is still recovering both from the trauma of his military career and losing his young son, Gabe. He begins experiencing flashbacks to his time in Vietnam, particularly one chaotic evening, as well as hallucinating in his everyday life, seeing demonic creatures and odd faces leering at him. Unable to see his doctor, recently killed in a car explosion, his symptoms begin to manifest physically. When his former colleague and friend is killed in an another explosion, Jacob reunites with his squad to investigate what happened to him and what might be affecting them all.

I should probably open this with the warning that this isn't going to be a particularly decisive view on the film as I'm not quite sure what I think of it just yet, but the immediacy of these reviews means you will inevitably get my raw reaction. And this film has left me feeling quite unfulfilled.

To clarify why this is, we have to skip straight to the end. Jacob, revealed to have been experimented on by the army and returning to his family home after his wayward time with Jezzie, sees his dead son, Gabe, playing on the stairs. He takes his son's hand and they walk up the steps as the film reveals that Jacob never actually left Vietnam, but died of the injuries we see him receiving in the flashbacks. It's supposed to be a moment of release, of catharsis, as Jacob accepts what has happened to him and dies peacefully. But, for me (and I know others have a very different opinion), it's all over too quickly, an anti-climax to the involving, chilling story that has gone before.

The build-up to his discovery of 'the Ladder', an experimental drug used on his battalion to make them more aggressive, is excellent. Adrian Lyne's direction gives the whole film a hallucinogenic feel that never quite lets you relax into it. The infamous hospital scene is a classic example; a dizzying array of imagery, sounds and emotion that is almost torturous to watch. It's an incredibly creepy film at times and that makes Jacob's journey so involving; we're attempting to piece together what he's seeing as much as he himself is. It helps that Tim Robbins is such a great everyman actor and he provides a solid anchor for the audience within the nightmarish world that the film places him in.

Prior to the car explosion that kills his former squad mate, Jacob's Ladder operates as an eloquent look at the effects of grief and trauma upon a person. The treatment of veterans, particularly from such horrific exercises as the Vietnam War (and wars since), has long been a social wound in American society and the film doesn't shy away from making the links between Jacob's experiences and his time in Vietnam. The flashbacks occur during his episodes which act like triggers, taking him back to night he was wounded as well as his time with his son, Gabe. These scenes function as an examination of the horrors of mental illness and how the sufferers are rendered powerless against it. It's an emotional form of horror, similar to that of this month's earlier film The Babadook, and it's when the film is at its most powerful.

The shift into a paranoid conspiracy thriller is smoothly done, but it also marks the point at which the film begins unravelling for me. Jacob's investigation into what has happened to him and his squad feels much pacier than the elegant build-up and is over almost too quickly. He meets the scientist who devised the experimental drugs and boom, the mystery is solved. The ending follows shortly after and lo, it was all a dream. 

This kind of ending is an ongoing personal narrative bug-bear for me; I'd list the places I've had this problem before, but that's one massive spoiler minefield. I'm aware that Jacob's journey here is attempting to accept that he is dying and the various traumatic episodes, the flashbacks (that then technically aren't flashbacks but the film's narrative proper) and the visions ahead to what his life could become all build into that. But it also undermines what is a truly absorbing first half, in which Jacob functions as a man trying to come to terms with the traumas and loss he has experienced. I didn't feel emotional when he met his son Gabe on the stairs, I felt cheated.

It's not that the film doesn't clue you in to what's going on; Jacob's Ladder is the biblical staircase to heaven, after all, and there's plenty of religious thematics running through the film to alert you to the almost purgatory-like state that Jacob finds himself in. Normally, I'd love that kind of thing and I'm sure if I go back to it, looking at the symbolism peppered throughout might win me round to what is obviously a multi-layered film, ripe for textual analysis. However, a raw reaction is the aim of these reviews and so, on first viewing, Jacob's Ladder has left me cold.

- Becky

You can find my other Shocktober '15 reviews here.

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