By Brian Brecker
“Jacob’s Ladder” is a 1990 supernatural horror film directed by Adrian Lyne, and it concerns the character of Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins), who, after a traumatic tour in the Vietnam War and the death of his young son, tries to put his life back together.
After a series of strange appearances and near-death experiences, he becomes convinced he’s being followed by things that aren’t human. These supernatural events lead him to start believing in demonology, and to struggle with the question of his own being. The film has since become a cult classic, and even inspired the horror videogame franchise “Silent Hill,” notable for its bizarre and distressing visuals and existential themes. A remake of the film is currently in the works, slated for release in 2019 by director David M. Rosenthal.
Rosenthal previously directed such critical flops and divisive flicks as “See This Movie,” “Falling Up” (starring Snoop Dogg), the semi-autobiographical “Janie Jones,” “A Single Shot,” “The Perfect Guy,” and “How It Ends.”
It’s not uncommon, however, for professional critics and audiences to disagree on what makes a “good” movie. Nor can one claim that Rosenthal, with his history of panned films, will produce a similarly badly-received work this time around.
A recurrent theme, however, in the criticism of Rosenthal’s films has been that of “blandness.” One critic, Tom Russo of the Boston Globe, wrote that Rosenthal’s “Janie Jones” “would feel more assured if Rosenthal had shown more of an inclination to commit.”
The remake of “Jacob’s Ladder” might be in similar danger of “blandness.” The concept, alone, of “Jacob’s Ladder” is multifaceted and complex, with themes of PTSD, grief, and spirituality. One could argue that even the original film barely managed to wrestle these ideas into a coherent narrative. To have a director known for making forgettable fare at the helm seems to indicate that the film’s intricate themes will have to be simplified or else doomed to incoherence.
Compounding this problem, according to ScreenRant, this may be an inherited project from a formerly aborted production. The idea for a “Jacob’s Ladder” remake has been tossed around for quite a while, previously attached to the writer of “When a Stranger Calls,” Jake Wade Hall. The script was then reworked by the remake’s current writer Jeff Buhler, who previously adapted a story by Clive Barker into “The Midnight Meat Train” to mild success. Buhler is aided by Sarah Thorp, writer of the Gerard Butler comedy “The Bounty Hunter.”
Buhler as a screenplay writer still has quite a lot to prove. Though many horror fans praised his rendition of “The Midnight Meat Train,” critics found it lackings. Whether or not he can match the level of emotional intensity imbued by the original “Jacob’s Ladder” writer, Bruce Joel Rubin, remains to be seen.
The cast of the remake is likewise intriguing. Michael Ealy of “Almost Human” has been attached to the project, as well as Jesse Williams, known for playing Dr. Jackson Avery on “Grey’s Anatomy.” Nicole Beharie of “Sleepy Hollow,” Karla Souza of “How to Get Away with Murder,” and Guy Burnett of “The Affair” have also been cast.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Burnett admitted that “to some people, it may be sacrilege to do [the remake.] Some people are going to like it, some people are not gonna like it as much, but I’m really excited to see what they’ve done with it.”
He then stressed that he hopes audiences will see the films as two different works and refrain from judging one by the other’s standards. Such comparisons, however, seem inevitable when the films share both a title and a concept.
In general, the most successful remakes seem to be those that improve upon the faults of the original, or that take the concept in an entirely new direction. John Carpenter’s 1982 “The Thing” was a remake of the 1950s sci-fi classic “The Thing from Another World,” generally regarded as improving upon the original’s premise in multiple ways.
Similarly, David Cronenberg’s “The Fly” in 1986 was a remake of the 1958 B-movie original. Cronenberg’s version is a body horror film, and its story is thematically a departure from the original.
The 1990 “Jacob’s Ladder” has been regarded as a critical classic of the psychological horror genre, so improving on the story might be difficult to pull off. Likewise, the film does not seem to be going in a completely new, visionary direction with the premise, either.
According to the Hollywood Reporter, “The plan is to contemporize the story with new situations and characters but still maintain a story that examines issues and poses existential questions.”
Ultimately, it will be up to public opinion and a new audience’s tastes whether or not the remake of “Jacob’s Ladder” is any good.
Viewers can only hold out hope that Rosenthal and Buhler may surprise us with a work that approaches or even surpasses the quality of the original. The film is set to appear in theaters Feb. 1.