Jacob's Ladder is a 1990 American psychological horror film directed by Adrian Lyne, written and produced by Alan Marshall, written by Bruce Joel Rubin and starring Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Peña, and Danny Aiello.
The film's protagonist, Jacob, is a Vietnam veteran whose experiences prior to and during the war result in strange, fragmentary visions and bizarre hallucinations that continue to haunt him. As his ordeal worsens, Jacob desperately attempts to figure out the truth.
On October 6, 1971, an American combat medic, Jacob Singer, is deployed in a village in Vietnam's Mekong Delta, when his unit comes under sudden attack. As many of Jacob's comrades are killed or wounded, others exhibit abnormal behavior with some suffering catatonia, convulsions, and seizures. Jacob flees into the jungle, only to be bayoneted by an unseen assailant.
Four years later he is back in America. There he works as a postal clerk, and lives in a rundown apartment in Brooklyn with his girlfriend, Jezebel. Jacob is increasingly haunted by disturbing experiences and apparitions, including glimpses of faceless vibrating figures and even an alternate reality where he has a wife and sons. He attempts to contact his regular doctor at the local VA hospital, but after first being told that there is no record of him ever being a patient there, Jacob is told that his doctor has died in a car explosion.
One of Jacob's former platoon mates, Paul, contacts him to reveal he is suffering from similar experiences but is immediately killed when his car explodes. After the funeral, other surviving members of the platoon confess that they have all been experiencing horrifying hallucinations. Believing that they are suffering the effects of a military experiment performed on them without their knowledge or consent, they hire a lawyer to investigate. However, the lawyer, in fear, quits. Jacob's comrades soon also back down while Jacob suspects they have all been threatened into doing so.
Later he is abducted by suited men who try to intimidate him regarding this matter, confirming his suspicions. Jacob fights them and manages to escape. Finally, in his investigations, Jacob is approached by a man called Michael Newman. He realises he had been there at 1971 prior to the attack.
Michael tells him, that he was a chemist with the Army's chemical warfare division where he designed a psychodrug drug he called The Ladder, which, when ingested massively, increased aggression and, theoretically, also the effectiveness of a soldier in a war. He also tells him that, in order to test the drug's effectiveness, a small dose of it was secretly given to him and his unit before the attack. Instead of having the desired effect, it caused many of them instead to turn on each other in a homicidal frenzy.
After hearing him he begins to remember everything about how they killed each other and how the attack was nothing more than how they did that. Then Jacob returns to his family's home, where he finds Gabe, who takes him by the hand and leads him up the staircase into a bright light.
The scene turns to a triage tent in 1971 as military doctors declare Jacob dead. The doctor notes that Jacob had put up a tremendous fight to stay alive, but looked peaceful in death. It is suggested the drug had given him hallucinations before he died after being mortally wounded in the attack which, in reality, was only this homicidal event.
In the aftermath it is mentioned that a psychodrug called BZ was tested in Vietnam on soldiers. It is also mentioned, that the Pentagon has always denied this, while this also implicitly says that Jacob and the others died because of it.
- Tim Robbins as Jacob "Professor" Singer
- Elizabeth Peña as Jezebel "Jezzie" Pikin
- Danny Aiello as Louis "Louie" Denardo
- Matt Craven as Michael Newman
- Pruitt Taylor Vince as Paul Grunger
- 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
Bruce Joel Rubin wrote the script ten years before it was produced. In order to write it, Rubin decided to let himself to be inspired by religious themes, especially Christian and Buddhist ones.
At first Rubin tried to sell the script without success because of Hollywood's reluctance to film ghost movies at that time. This changed after the filming of Deadly Friend by Wes Craven in 1986. Paramount Pictures was supposed to produce it like it produced Ghost, but ownership and policy changes at Paramount resulted in the cancellation of the project. Instead the studioCarolco Pictures decided to take over the production of Jacob's Ladder.
The film's military advisor was Vietnam veteran Captain Dale Dye, who provided a five-day boot camp military training for the actors playing soldiers in the Vietnam storyline, while the war scenes were filmed in the Puerto Rico area of Vega Baja, featuring the UH-1 helicopters provided by the Puerto Rico National Guard. Finally, all of the film's special effect sequences were filmed in camera, with no use of post production effects.
The movie received mostly positive reviews. Though it was only moderately successful, the film still garnered a cult following and its plot and special effects became a source of influence for various other works such as the horror franchise Silent Hill.
Finally, a remake of the movie was made in 2019.