Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

Jacob's Ladder (1990)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

Jacob's Ladder (1990)

In Adrian Lyne's psycho-horror thriller with a complex story structure - it told about a Vietnam veteran's alleged PTSD after serving in combat and being lethally wounded, suffering from various hallucinations and nightmares in his subconscious that were impinging upon and confronting his daily life's realities, because he was unwilling to let go of his attachments to life and free his soul; the film's title referred to a reference in the book of Genesis about a ladder leading up to or ascending into Heaven.

Many of the characters were given Biblical names: Jacob, Gabriel (a heavenly archangel), and Jezebel (a seductress and symbol of lustful desire) to name a few:

  • in the opening Vietnam War scene set in 1971 in the Mekong Delta, soldier Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) was wounded (or killed?) during combat, when bayoneted in the abdomen, and was helicoptered out of the fighting zone to an army hospital (seen in a later flashback)
  • there were many nightmarish, chilling images and blurry, drug-related visions during traumatized veteran Jacob's own purgatorial, nightmarish after-life after being wounded and finding himself back in his NY neighborhood; in 1975 as a NY postal worker, he had been working late (with overtime) before returning (a strange ride on the dirty subway) to his small, run-down Brooklyn apartment where he lived with his Latina girlfriend/co-worker Jezebel ("Jezzie") Pimpkin (Elizabeth Pena); he was divorced from his wife Sarah (Patricia Kalember) with two other children, and was missing his dead son Gabe (uncredited Macaulay Culkin) who had died before the war

Ex-Wife Sarah

Sarah With Two Children

Haunted by Memories of Deceased Son Gabe
  • at a VA hospital, Jacob attempted to be examined by Dr. Carlson, but the reception nurse (Suzanne Shepherd) kept insisting that no-such doctor existed and there was no record of Jacob being a patient; before leaving, another doctor informed him that Carlson "blew up" in a car accident and died a month earlier
  • in a nightclub house party, Jacob had his palm read by a psychic named Elsa (S. Epatha Merkerson), who told him that he was already dead: ("According to this, you're already dead"); in the hallucinatory scene, Jacob's temptress lover "Jezzie" performed an erotic dance to James Brown's Ma Thang (Sex Machine), when a snake-like devil with a scaly reptilian tail curled around her and then a horn abruptly ripped open her mouth
  • a frenzied Jacob was placed in an ice bath by "Jezzie" to calm his fever
Ice-Cold Bath For Jacob Singer
  • Jacob took a disturbing trip through a decaying, nightmarish underworld hospital (purgatory or hell?), when he was strapped down on a stretcher and wheeled through a corridor littered with bloody human body parts on the floor, stacks of amputated limbs and appendages, and populated by deformed mental patients and demonic figures above him on a chain-link floor, and one masked faceless man (Alva Williams) who was shaking violently
  • when Jacob was being operated upon with barbaric surgical instruments, he was asked by the evil doctor: "Where do you want to go?"; Jacob asserted: "Home" - the doctor retorted back: "Home? This is your home, you're dead"; Jacob disagreed: "I'm alive!", when the doctor asked: "Then what are you doing here?...There is no out of here. You've been killed, don't you remember?"
Jacob Wheeled Through Nightmarish Hospital With a Maskless Shaking Figure, Bloody Body Parts on Floor, and Crazed Mental Patients Above Him
  • an evil eyeless doctor (Davidson Thomson) with flesh-covered eyes (no eye sockets) revealed to Jacob: ("There is no outta here. You've been killed. Don't you remember?"), and then painfully stuck a long syringe-needle into the middle of Jacob's forehead
Evil Eyeless Doctor Administering Injection
  • Jacob was then visited by his ex-wife Sarah and their two sons while in the hospital, as he asserted to her: ("I'm not dead, I'm alive. I'm not dead"). She responded: "Oh, Jacob. I still love you, whatever it's worth," but their reconciliation was dashed when a sardonic disembodied voice taunted: "Dream on" - causing Jacob to break down in tears, as he realized that her appearance was only a wish-fulfilling fantasy while he was dying (as he pleaded: "Help me")
  • Jacob was saved by therapeutic sessions with guardian angel chiropractor Louis (Danny Aiello), who reassured him while treating him, and cured him of his paralysis - plus he diagnosed Jacob's problem - that he was frightened of dying: ("You ever read Meister Eckart?...How'd you get your doctorate without reading Eckart? Relax...You're a regular basket case, you know that? Eckart saw Hell, too. You know what he said? He said: 'The only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won't let go of your life. Your memories, your attachments. They burn 'em all away. But they're not punishing you,' he said. 'They're freeing your soul.' Relax. Good. So the way he sees it, if you're frightened of dyin' and you're holdin' on, you'll see devils tearin' your life away. But if you've made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freein' you from the earth. It's just a matter of how you look at it, that's all. So don't worry, okay? 'K? (laughing) Relax, relax. Relax")
  • Jacob also had a secret rendezvous with 'hippie chemist' Michael Newman (Matt Craven) who had worked for the Army's chemical warfare division; Jacob was told that his battalion had been secretly given a dose in their C-rations of an experimental psycho-reactive drug (code-named 'ladder'), to counteract the effects of combat-induced post-traumatic stress, by causing soldiers to become more aggressive in combat ("A fast trip straight down the Ladder, right to the primal fear, right to the base anger"). Its negative side effects were intense hallucinations - and in Jacob's platoon's case, soldiers attacked and killed each other ("It was brother against brother. No discrimination. You tore each other to pieces"). It was hinted that Jacob's war injury was from 'friendly fire" from one of his own soldiers affected by the homicide-inducing drug; although there may have been a government conspiracy, Jacob's hallucinations upon his return to NYC were not caused by the drug, or battle stress, but because he wasn't freeing his soul
  • he suffered from guilt over the death of his son Gabe (or Gabriel) when Jacob remembered /imagined Gabe's death by an automobile when the young boy was picking up baseball cards he had dropped in the middle of the street while walking his bicycle
  • Jacob was thwarted by demons into seeing his son again - until the next-to-final scene (when he returned to his old apartment bathed in golden light) in which he finally accepted his own death; in the final tearjerking scene, Jacob spotted his dead son Gabe playing with a red music box (playing "Sonny Boy") on the stairs - the boy looked up and greeted him with: "Hi Dad!"; as they hugged, Gabe reassured his father: "It's OK" - followed by Gabe telling him: "Come on, let's go up" - they calmly and peacefully ascended up the staircase (or ladder) into the golden light, after Jacob accepted his own death

Jacob's Dead Son Gabe

Ascending Stairs into Golden Light with Son Gabe

Revelation of Plot Twist
  • the revelation of the plot twist was the fact of Jacob's actual death during combat in Vietnam from a fellow US soldier accidentally gutting him, and the army doctor's words as he was on an operating triage table in Vietnam: ("He's gone. He looks kind of peaceful... He put up a hell of a fight, though"); he was experiencing a dream or reflection of his life that was flashing - literally - before his eyes
  • the final screen stated the alleged combat use of an hallucinogen called 3-quinuclidinyl benzilate, to minimize fear and to increase aggression:

    "It was reported that the hallucinogenic drug BZ was used in experiments on soldiers during the Vietnam war. The Pentagon denied the story."

Flashback: Combat in Vietnam - Jacob Skewered by a Bayonet

Civilian Life in NYC as a Postal Worker

Current Latina Girlfriend/Lover Jezebel or "Jezzie" (Elizabeth Pena)

Jacob's Palm-Reading by Psychic Elsa

Freaking Out at Dance Party

"Jezzie"'s Disturbing Dance Attack in Nightclub

Strapped Down on a Stretcher - Jacob's Torment

Purgatorial Hospital Tour - Bloody Floor Littered with Human Body Parts

Treatment of Therapeutic Chiropractor Louis (Danny Aiello) - With Crucial Speech Diagnosing Jacob's Problem

Michael Newman (Matt Craven) Explaining Experimental War Drug - Code-Named "Ladder"

Scene of Son's Death in Car Accident

Jacob Accepting His Death


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