A criminally underrated film from the unlikely director of 'sexy' films like Flashdance, 9 ½ Weeks and Fatal Attraction and from the man who wrote Ghost (and, oddly enough, Stuart Little 2, if you're keeping track), 1990's Jacob's Ladder is every bit the horror film it was originally marketed as but underneath the shocks there's a truly dramatic heart. When the film was originally released, moviegoers didn't really seem to know how to react to it, while critical reaction was decidedly mixed. A film that merits, far more so than most, repeat viewings, it's a multilayered effort that eschews style in favor of substance and which mixes up its visual scares with unusually sympathetic pathos.
The movie follows a U.S. postal worker named Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) who lives with his foxy, eccentric girlfriend/co-worker, Jezzie (Elizabeth Penna) after having left his wife, Sarah (Patricia Kalember) some time ago. Jacob's life, on the outside at least, seems perfectly normal but some well played flashbacks show us that he and a few other soldiers were put through Hell during their stint serving their country in the Vietnam War. When Jacob starts seeing faceless creatures and suffering from horrifying hallucinations, he slowly but surely starts to lose his grip on his sanity. Jezzie does what she can to help, throwing him in a bathtub full of ice when his fever becomes life threatening, but he's falling quickly and can't shake the memories of his ex-wife or of the child they had and lost together, Gabe (Macaulay Culkin). His chiropractor (Danny Aiello) tries to help where and when he can but Jacob and his former platoon members know that there's something more going on here than anyone else realizes, including the lawyer they hire (Jason Alexander). Are Jacob and his war buddies all losing their collective minds or were they the subject of some sort of covert military experiment?
Shot primarily on the mean streets of working class Brooklyn (with the hospital scenes brilliantly staged in Staten Island's abandoned Sea View Hospital, a former mental hospital which is now primarily left alone save for a few buildings operating as a retirement home and a popular site for urban explorers!) Jacob's Ladder uses its locations well, letting the biggest city in the country's cramped conditions add to the claustrophobia Jacob is already experiencing in his mind. The film also manages to milk out a really effective sense of dread, despair and uncleanliness by focusing not on the glitz and glamour of the New York City that tourists see but on the actuality that a mean, sprawling metropolis can provide. This attention to detail in regards to the film's locations really does a fantastic job of complimenting Jacob's decline and it manages to provide the perfect backdrop for this bizarre tale to unfold against.
Director Adrian Lyne's experience shooting R-rated sex films does manage to work its way into the picture not only when we see Jacob and Jezzie in bed together but also in one of the film's most freakishly erotic moments where, at a house party, Jezzie dances with a man who is not what he seems and, in Jacob's eyes at least, pays dearly for it. For the vast majority of the film, however, Lyne's focus is on the cerebral rather than the sexual and as attractive as Ms. Penna is, the film really is all the better for it as it allows us to take in the expert performances that the cast deliver. Everyone here brings their A-game, with Penna's Jezzie offering as much understanding and sympathy as she can but obviously starting to understandably crack under some of the pressure she finds herself under due to her lover's condition. Jason Alexander, forever George Costanza, is good as the sleazy lawyer initially keen to take on a case but who, for reasons we can only speculate on, drops it like a hot iron before it really starts. Danny Aiello is his usual reliable self in his supporting role but the real star of the show, if you couldn't guess from the top billing he receives and the poster image and cover art baring his visage, is Tim Robbins. Having delivered more than his far share of excellent performances primarily in dramatic roles and comedic roles, it's interesting to watch Robbins deal with more horrific subject matter. His Jacob Singer is a truly tortured soul and it's impossible to watch the film and not be at least marginally affected by his plight and the emotional turmoil it sets upon him. Robbins handles the role perfectly, making it his own without scenery chewing or ever overdoing it and instead playing it subtly and realistically.
Too dramatic to appeal to those who want a traditional horror film and too horrific to catch the typical drama aficionados out there, Jacob's Ladder sits firmly and rightfully in a class of its own. It's a film that rewards those willing to pay close attention and invest a little bit of themselves into figuring out the mystery behind the story. It isn't always an easy film to 'get' but it works incredibly well and holds up impeccably as a genre bending minor masterpiece.
Jacob's Ladder debuts on Blu-ray in North American in a 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer using MPEG-4 encoding. Those who haven't seen the film before might be a bit taken aback by the grim and deliberately flat looking color scheme employed in the picture and this look has been carried over to the transfer, as it should be. The film exists in a world of blacks and browns and dirty grey tones, so don't expect it to pop much. Skin tones are lifelike and natural looking and close ups show good detail but there's a softness inherent in the film's look and cinematography that ensures that this film will never be reference quality demo material. Print damage is held in check though a natural (and at times moderately heavy) coat of film grain is present. With so much of the film taking place in dimly lit areas and grimy locations, it's never going to look all that slick or all that pretty and the haziness and soft focus used will probably irritate some viewers but the disc is an improvement over the standard definition release not just in terms of detail and texture but in clarity as well. The lack of compression artifacts and nasty edge enhancement is also a plus.
The English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is decent, but again, not one you'll put on to show off your home theater system. Dialogue is generally clean and clear and quite easy to understand but this often times sounds like little more than a standard stereo mix. There are some exceptions - the war scenes have some rear channel activity as do some of the hospital scenes - but the bulk of the action comes at us from the front left and right channels. Bass response is underwhelming and the low end of the mix doesn't have much punch to it, but that issue aside, the movie sounds fine for what it is and the lossless mix does offer improved clarity over the standard definition DVD release from a few years back.
There's nothing new here as far as the extras are concerned but everything that was on the DVD is here on the Blu-ray as well, starting with director Adrian Lyne's commentary track. Here he dissects the movie and talks about the recurring themes that it deals with and how Jacob's character changes as the film plays out. He also talks about casting the picture, shares some stories about the cast and crew who pitched in on the project, and about some of the New York City locations that were used in the picture. It's a good, solid, well rounded talk that sheds some light on some of the film's more obscure moments and one which its fans should listen to.
From there, check out the twenty-five minute featurette which includes input from Lyne and scriptwriter Bruce Rubin as well as most of the cast members. The featurette explains the different characters' motivations in the picture and also sheds some light on the locations and effects work used in the film. It's quite interesting and fairly detailed, making it worth a watch for anyone looking to learn more about the film.
Rounding out the extras are three deleted scenes, a teaser trailer, and a theatrical trailer (which includes a shot not in the film or in the deleted scenes). Animated menus and chapter stops are also included. All of the extra content on this disc is in standard definition.
Jacob's Ladder didn't really find the audience it deserved when it played theaters in 1990 despite (or maybe because of) the fact that it's a very intelligent, well made and interesting film that provides dramatic food for thought alongside its more memorable scenes of visceral horror. It's a film you should see more than once to really appreciate, and Lionsgate's Blu-ray release offers enough of an increase in quality over the previous DVD release to make it the best way to do just that. Highly recommended, primarily on the strength of the film, with the caveat that this isn't an audiophile or videophile's dream come true.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.