JACOB’S LADDER (1990) Reviews and overview

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‘The most frightening thing about Jacob Singer’s nightmare is that he isn’t dreaming.’

Jacob’s Ladder is a 1990 American horror feature film written by Bruce Joel Rubin (GhostDeadly Friend), directed by Adrian Lyne (Fatal Attraction) and starring Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Peña and Danny Aiello. The film’s title refers to the biblical story of Jacob’s Ladder, or the dream of a meeting place between Heaven and Earth.

Divorced Vietnam veteran turned postman Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) is disturbed when he begins to be plagued by bizarre and violent hallucinations, both of the family he has abandoned and a bloody battle he could not previously remember. The images are so strong that the line between past and present, real and unreal, begins to dissolve. Desperate for help, Jacob turns to his ex-wife, Sarah, and chiropractor Louis (Danny Aiello)…


Made by an independent film company Carolco Pictures ten years after being written by Rubin, Jacob’s Ladder drew from several inspirations for its story and effects, including the short film An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and the paintings of Francis Bacon, and as a modern interpretation of the Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State, the Tibetan Book of the Dead:

Rubin explained: “The inspiration in a sense is my entire spiritual upbringing. Once you have a meditative life you start to see that the world is really far different than what it appears to be. What appears to be finite is really couched in the infinite, and the infinite imbues everything in our lives.” Before writing his scripts for Jacob’s Ladder and Ghost, which too was released in 1990, the Jewish-born Rubin spent two years in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Nepal.

Though only a moderately successful upon release, the film garnered a cult following and became a source of influence for a number of other works, notably the horror media franchise Silent Hill.

jacob's ladder

According to Lyne’s audio commentary on the Blu-ray, test screenings indicated that the initial version of the film was overwhelming for the audience. In response, about 20 minutes of disturbing scenes, mostly from the last third of the film, were deleted from the final cut. These are provided as extras on the Blu-ray disc.


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“This is a fascinating film, not only for what it achieves but for what it avoids. Psychological thrillers play tricks as entertainment. Often the trickery becomes the raison d’etre. Here, there are no tricks. Within the framework of an extraordinary story, which lays itself open to cinematic indulgence, the overriding factor is integrity.” Eye for Film

Jacob’s Ladder is so ‘dark’ it sucks Robbins right down with it. By the time Jacob is being strapped to a bed and wheeled down a hospital corridor strewn with bloody limbs, it’s hard to care whether the Orwellian image is a hallucination or not. You just want out.” Entertainment Weekly


“Beautifully designed by Fatal Attraction helmer Lyne, Jacob’s Ladder feels like an offbeat slice of post-hippy experimentation retooled for the MTV generation: what it lacks in-depth and subtlety, it more than makes up for in shock tactics and woozy unpredictability, all anchored in Robbins’s wide-eyed and pitiable central turn.” Time Out

“This movie was not a pleasant experience, but it was exhilarating in the sense that I was able to observe filmmakers working at the edge of their abilities and inspirations. Not every movie has to be fun.” Chicago Sun-Times


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“Despite Robbins good performance and impressive visions of New York circa 1971 as Hell, this is ultimately more annoying than affecting, betraying the superficial grime-as-glamour razzamataz that sunk Alan Parker’s Angel Heart (1987) into an identical mire of pompous post-generic sludge.” The Aurum Film Encyclopedia: Horror

Cast and characters:

  • Tim Robbins as Jacob “Professor” Singer
  • Elizabeth Peña as Jezebel “Jezzie” Pipkin
  • Danny Aiello as Louis Denardo
  • Matt Craven as Michael Newman
  • Pruitt Taylor Vince as Paul
  • Jason Alexander as Mr. Geary, the lawyer
  • Patricia Kalember as Sarah
  • Eriq La Salle as Frank
  • Ving Rhames as George
  • Brian Tarantina as Doug
  • Anthony Alessandro as Rod
  • Brent Hinkley as Jerry
  • S. Epatha Merkerson as Elsa
  • Kyle Gass as Tony
  • Lewis Black as Jacob’s doctor
  • Perry Lang as Jacob’s assailant
  • Macaulay Culkin [uncredited] as Gabe Singer

jacob's ladder 4


Film Facts:

The title is a reference to a “biblical ladder to heaven, mentioned in Genesis 28:12.”

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