Jen’s October Flicks: Jacob’s Ladder

This October, we’re trying something different. From October 2nd to the 31st, Jen will be writing up horror movie recommendations on a daily basis. The selection will weave between well-worn classics and the smaller fare, but they’re all special in their own way. If you watch one and want to let her know what you think (or judge her taste in films), you can find her on Twitter at @jbu3.

Have you ever had one of those nightmares that inches too close to reality? You might pop into class, take your seat and unpack your messenger bag, only to notice something’s…off. The classmate directly behind you is missing their face, but as you yelp in surprise, the rest of the room acts as though you’re pulling a prank or stayed up too late. Your everyday life and overactive imagination continuously collide until you jolt from bed in a cold sweat, relieved that the world around you can be trusted once again.

Jacob’s Ladder posits an uncomfortable question: if waking up doesn’t dispel the nightmare, did you ever wake up in the first place? After a traumatic tour in Vietnam, Jacob Singer tries his hand at a civilian life in New York, working for the post office. Despite his best efforts, he just can’t shake the war, as bits and pieces from his military days bleed in like an unwelcome specter. There’s no obvious antagonist, no cult or killer: for most of its runtime, the movie wants you second-guessing whether Jacob’s wrestling with severe PTSD or seeing something real that the others just can’t notice. No matter how many times he wakes up, Jacob can’t dispel the nauseating visions that follow him everywhere.

If some of his visions look familiar, you might have played one or two Silent Hill games. Heads shake so furiously that their faces are rendered as terrifying blurs, sacks within the back of a mail truck shift as if something’s trapped inside, and strangers cryptically suggest that Jacob may be in a lot of trouble. Without giving too much away, his trip to the hospital was clearly the catalyst for entire series, but you don’t need that background to soak in its overwhelming disgust.

Its take on mental health shows its age, but Jacob’s Ladder remains one of the most effective psychological horror films I’ve ever seen. Just remember that nightmares rarely have a happy ending.

Jacob’s Ladder is available to rent from just about any service, though it isn’t in any of the streaming libraries. I promise, I’ll find one or two movies on Netflix or Hulu before this feature is through.