It helps to remember that Bruce Joel Rubin, the screenwriter who conjured up the original “Jacob’s Ladder” back in 1990, also wrote the blockbuster “Ghost.”
And Mr. Rubin, as he told me way back then, wrote these afterlife thrillers during his deep dive into “The Tibetan Book of the Dead,” with Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurance at Owl Creek Bridge” holding his interest, too.
Sure, we all remember the “vibrating man” effects — apparitions shaking into a blur, an effect used often in the decades since. But these were thought-provoking ghost stories in an era that produced those, tales of time and memory unhinged and an afterlife that offers either peace and closure or eternal damnation.
And yes, purgatory might mean you’re stuck on New York’s subway system for all eternity.
The new “Jacob’s Ladder” is significantly different from the original in many ways, but not in a couple of important ones.
Casting Michael Ealy, a leading man given to playing sensitive leads or haunted heavies, pays off. He is Jacob, an Iraq War vet confused by the unraveling reality of life back home in Atlanta, and Ealy’s an old pro at convincing us of shock, terror and hurt. His eyes scream “The horror, the horror” when the need arises.
And the tone of this David M. Rosenthal remake — he did Ealy’s “The Perfect Man” with Sanaa Lathan and Morris Chestnut — is spooky and spot on.
It works about as well as a remake that’s half an hour shorter than the original can work, which isn’t a ringing endorsement, I know. Still worth taking a look at.
Jacob Singer is an Atlanta trauma surgeon who works in the city Veterans Administration hospital. He was a combat trauma surgeon in Iraq, and that experience hangs over him, with memory overwhelming his present reality on occasion.
Jacob didn’t realize the patient he was about to lose in a field hospital in Iraq was his brother Isaac (Jesse Williams) until he spied his tattoo.
Now Jacob is running into demented vets on the street. They’re wearing combat jackets and hoodies, and their messages are all over the place.
“Your brother’s here…You’re brother’s in trouble. I can show you.”
And then there are the hooded ghouls who invade the house he shares with wife Sam (Nicole Beharie). Unmasking one is Jacob’s first clue that he’s not dealing with something of this world.
“Better keep your mouth shut” is what he’s told. By the house-breaker who vanishes into the trees.
Who to confide in? Sam? She’s busy with their baby who was born when he was overseas.
There’s Hoffman, the VA pharmacist (Guy Burnet). And there’s the psychotherapist (Michael Panes) helping Jacob deal with whatever level of post traumatic stress he’s suffering.
Will either have the answers when that one traumatized comrade of his brother’s (Joseph Sikora) leads him to his dead brother, hiding out in the bowels of The City Too Busy to Hate.
Isaac? You were dead!
Bringing the “dead” sibling home merely intensifies the hallucinations, the flashbacks — to their childhood together, to Jacob’s wedding day with Sam, to combat or field surgery in Iraq.
These flashbacks — machine fire, visions of choppers, the works — are so intense they can kill a man. Jacob’s not the only one having them. There’s this anti-psychotic drug,HDA, “The Ladder,” that was out, then pulled, that seems like a clue.
Rosenthal’s film, based on Jeff Buhler and Sarah Thorpe’s rewrite of the 1990 “Jacob’s Ladder,” grabs us with a gory rib-spreader surgical opening and then settles into the moody terrors that Jacob won’t speak about, so certain is he that all this supernatural stuff is really roiling around him.
Would a doctor REALLY believe clerical mistakes let him think his brother has been dead?
“I just want to know what’s going on!”
As in the original “Ladder,” the one person who might have answers that provide solace is named “Louis.” Then, that was Jacob’s chiropractor-protector and father-confessor, played by the great Danny Aiello.
Here Louis is a similarly calming presence, his psychotherapist. Character actor Michael Panes (he was Gore Vidal in “Infamous”) summons up the soothing tones of Louis’s profession to talk Jacob off his psychic ledge.
“We all see things,” he says, quoting Medieval theologian and philosopher Meister Eckhart to his fellow physician. “The only thing that burns in Hell is the part of yourself that refuses to let go.”
The first “Jacob’s Ladder” earned mixed notices upon release, and never quite achieved “cult” status. This version is no better in many ways, and altering its twist ending isn’t much of an improvement.
Honestly, it seems to muddle the whole wrestling with mortality and “what comes after” thing, aside from Louis’s little speech.
But there isn’t a bad performance in it, and those turns made me buy in just enough. It’s still a mixed bag, but for those in a “Ghost” frame of mind, it’s not bad.
MPAA Rating: R for language, some violence, sexuality and drug content
Cast: Michael Ealy, Jesse Williams, Nicole Beharie, Joseph Sikora, Karla Souza, Ninja N. Devoe
Credits: Directed by David M. Rosenthal, script by Jeff Buhler and Sarah Thorpe, based on the Bruce Joel Rubin script for the 1990 film. A Vertical Entertainment release.
Running time: 1:29