Jacob's Ladder: written by Bruce Joel Rubin; directed by Adrian Lyne; starring Tim Robbins (Jacob Singer), Elizabeth Pena (Jezzie), and Danny Aiello (Louis) (1990): Screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin (Ghost, which came out the same year as this, 1990) seems to have gotten indigestion from a combination of Roman Catholicism, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and Viet Nam-era conspiracy theories. Director Adrian Lyne (Fatal Attraction, Flashdance, 9 1/2 Weeks) is not the first person I'd choose to direct an occult thriller. Though he does give us a lot of naked Elizabeth Pena, and Tim Robbins seems to be shirtless for two-thirds of the movie.
But Lyne does base the 'look' of some of the film's 'demons' on things like Francis Bacon paintings rather than traditional horns-and-tails depictions (though there are also horns and tails). These, including a recurring hooded, vibrating figure, work pretty well. Well, well until Lyne goes to the well once too often, in the process showing us so much of 'Shaky Man' that it ceases to be creepy and instead clearly becomes a mannequin attached to a paint mixing machine.
Admittedly, if I came across a mannequin attached to a paint mixing machine during my travels, I'd probably be weirded out. Well, no. Now that I've seen Jacob's Ladder, I'd know that Adrian Lyne was around somewhere.
I think this movie probably works pretty well for a viewer who hasn't read or watched much horror. From my standpoint, the horror peaks early, in a genuinely terrific subway sequence featuring Robbins and one bad subway stop. Things gradually fall apart after that.
The main plot problem is that the Viet Nam conspiracy stuff and the occult stuff ultimately have no real connection to one another by the very rules set up by the movie. Rubin clearly intended the Viet Nam stuff to be important -- there's even a portentous title card about secret Viet Nam drug trials as the film concludes. But the occult stuff seems meant to be a separate, universal phenomenon that stitches together Christianity and Tibetan Buddhism.
The performances are all fine, especially that of the perennially under-appreciated Elizabeth Pena, who's much better and more interesting than her character has been written. Tim Robbins is good, as pretty much always. Lyne makes one terrible, terrible choice in sound effects, however. During the opening scene set in Viet Nam, one of the recurring sound effects for an explosion is a long-standing sound effect that I remember from 1970's TV shows that include Battlestar: Galactica and Buck Rogers. This completely destroyed my suspension of disbelief for the Viet Nam stuff. I kept expecting Twiki to show up. Lightly recommended.