The 13th Floor

JACOB’S LADDER Goes To Hell And Back

Recently a friend told me that one of my favorite horror films, JACOB’S LADDER, is being remade.  Naturally this makes me nervous—not just because remakes in general make me nervous, but because JACOB’S LADDER is a unique vision that seems easy to misinterpret.  In March, Bloody Disgusting reported that the “new version,” based on a pitch by Jake Wade Hall, will be “a modern day paranoid action thriller about two brothers.”  Now I realize that this is an early synopsis…. but what the hell does it have to do with JACOB’S LADDER?


The 1990 film is about a Vietnam veteran named Jacob Singer who starts seeing demonic creatures on the streets (and in the subterranean bowels) of New York City.  At first Jacob doubts his own senses.  Then he realizes that he is not alone.  His visions seem to be the result of a secret drug test performed on U.S. soldiers during the war.  When Jacob tries to get answers from some of his fellow vets, he quickly realizes that they are being hunted and killed, one by one.  His paranoia grows until he finds himself questioning every aspect of day-to-day reality.  What’s real and what’s not?  Jacob has to figure it out, or die trying.


The story was conceived in 1980 by struggling screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin.  At the time, Rubin had a film in development hell (BRAINSTORM), and he was trying to write his way out of an over-before-it-starts Hollywood career.  Along came JACOB’S LADDER.  Rubin told Hollywood Scriptwriter,  “It began as a dream, a nightmare, really, which is the second scene in the movie.  A guy leaves the subway, only to find that all the exits are locked.  And in my dream I realized that the only way out for this guy was down.  And down implied, very clearly, to Hell.  And so I understood that in order to find freedom, I had to go through Hell.  I woke up in a terror from that experience and the first words in my mind were, ‘What a great opening for a movie!’  That’s where it came from.”


The writer claims that the rest of the story was “delivered” to him in a similar fashion: “I sat at the typewriter and I just wrote.  And I just typed as fast as I could, because it was just coming through.”  At one point, he says, his wife came into the room and started reading the new pages over his shoulder.  Horrified by what she read, she asked, “What are you writing that for?”  Rubin answered, “I don’t know.”


After three days of feverish work, he reached an impasse.   Rubin didn’t know where the story was supposed to go next.  This time, inspiration came from a more readily identifiable source—the old TWILIGHT ZONE series.  Rubin remembered an episode based on Ambrose Bierce’s tale “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” about a Revolutionary War soldier who narrowly escapes from enemy troops and fights his way home to his family.  At the end of the tale, the audience learns that the journey happened only in the soldier’s imagination, during the final seconds before he was hanged.   In notes on the published script, Rubin explains that he realized he was writing a variation on the same tale: “Suddenly it hit me.  Jacob is not dead.  He is dying.  The journey we are taking is not a hellish vision, but the struggle for Jacob’s soul, the confrontation between the forces of light and the dark within him.  It is the last moment of every human being, the final battle.”


In Rubin’s finished script, the Vietnam / drug conspiracy story is merely a MacGuffin, or (to use the writer’s words) “a sugar pill.”  The real story is a spiritual one, based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead.  The ancient text proposes that there are states of existence between life and death called “bardos.”  A modern-day study by Sogyal Rinpoche offers this philosophical explanation of the bardo teachings and Jacob’s journey: “The teachings tell us that it is precisely because we no longer have a body in the bardos that there is no ultimate reason to fear any experience, however terrifying, that may happen to us after death.  How can any harm, after all, ever come to a ‘no-body’?  The problem, however, is that in the bardos, most people go on grasping at a false sense of self, with its ghostly grasping at physical solidity; and this continuation of that illusion, which has been the root of all suffering in life, exposes them in death to more suffering.”


In the 1990 film, a mysterious chiropractor named Louie (played by Danny Aiello) articulates the same idea in a more familiar way: “If you’re frightened of dying, and you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away.  But if you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the earth.”  Accordingly, in Rubin’s screenplay, Jacob’s dark Hell literally becomes a radiant vision of Heaven, and Jacob’s spirit emerges from his body as a beam of light from a charred cocoon.   The final scene reveals that the entire narrative of the film has taken place while Jacob was dying on an operating table in Vietnam.  Rubin is quick to point out that the journey was not simply a dream in Jacob’s dying mind.  Rather, it was “the penultimate human experience” of the bardos between life and death.


Now imagine trying to pitch that to a Hollywood executive.  It’s no wonder that Rubin’s script went unproduced for nearly ten years, despite interest from filmmakers including Ridley Scott, Sidney Lumet and Brian DePalma.  In 1983, American Film journalist Stephen Rebello named JACOB’S LADDER one of the ten best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood.   In the latter half of the decade, Rubin says, a number of people wanted to make it as a “rubber reality” horror film in the vein of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET.  (Ironically, Rubin had worked with Wes Craven on DEADLY FRIEND, but the two apparently did not discuss making JACOB’S LADDER together.)  Instead, it became the pet project of A-list director Adrian Lyne, who had just scored a major hit with FATAL ATTRACTION.


Lyne was, in some ways, the perfect complement to Rubin—a visionary capable of adding new flesh to the writer’s spiritual journey.  The two creators reportedly butted heads over the ending of the story, with Lyne’s sentimental finale winning out over Rubin’s philosophical conclusion, but the rest of the film is a near-perfect fusion of earthly horror and ethereal awe.    With its arthouse pedigree, JACOB’S LADDER ends up capturing the terrifying possibilities of the “rubber reality” subgenre better than all of the Wes Craven copycats of the day—and for one very specific reason: Rubin believes.  For him, JACOB’S LADDER is not just a story.


The screenwriter summed up for Starlog in 1990: “There is within each of us a sense that our minds are not giving us the whole truth.  And exploring that truth is a horrifying journey.  To discover that many of your paranoias are not without some basis in truth was very compelling to me.  I don’t like movies that scare the audience for its own sake.  That’s cheap.  If I take them on a journey into fear, I would like it to be a cathartic experience, something that would inform where fear itself comes from.  Deep in our psyche, we have greater knowledge about the truth of our existence than we dare to face, which is why the only time we do is during the dream state.  In dreams, we tend to experience life much more directly, and yet by being unconscious, we don’t have to deal with the knowledge we get.  Imagine now entering that awake!”

That’s the challenge for any filmmaker who wants to resurrect JACOB’S LADDER.  Anything less will be a sugar pill.