Jacob (Tim Robbins) is a friendly postal worker who is also a Vietnam veteran. His fairly comfortable life with his girlfriend Jezzie (the wonderful, late Elizabeth Peña) is disrupted by sudden hallucinations: he has Vietnam flashbacks and also horrible visions of monsters. One night he wakes up in bed with his ex-wife Sarah (Patricia Kalember), as if nothing happened between them, and his son Gabe (Macauley Culkin), who died, is still alive. He’s contacted by a pack of war buddies (including Ving Rhames, Eriq La Salle, and Pruitt Taylor Vince), who are also having problems. They suspect the military performed experiments on them, but when they mysteriously die, Jacob is left to wonder alone what is actually reality as the apparitions get worse.
Getting my recommendation out early, I recommend it especially to Christians and other Bible enthusiasts who like horror movies (I know you’re out there). The film is chock full of biblical references, from names to events and concepts like hell and angels. I myself don’t understand them all; I’m pretty much stuck after the names—actually, I can’t even remember who Jacob and Sarah are, though Jezebel and Gabe are pretty obvious, and Jacob himself points out his other two sons Jed and Eli are named after prophets.
This film is extremely creepy, and also innovative. This may be the first movie to use the “whirring and vibrating head” technique (thank you production notes for the definition of such a hard-to-describe occurrence), much utilized by William Malone. Seeing as how Jacob is the main character, we’re stuck with him through all the crazy things he sees. His hallucination of Jezzie with a tail made #21 on Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments.
To me the eeriest part is when he hurts his back. He’s laid out on the street, and a guy in a Santa Clause costume steals his wallet—it’s a low-angle shot from Jacob’s point of view, which makes the guy appear to tower over Jacob. Then he’s on a gurney in a nightmare hospital, with blood on the walls, body parts on the floor, and patients in straitjackets leering at him—not to mention more whirring heads. After all that, a doctor with no eyes sticks a giant needle in Jacob’s head.
The first time I saw the movie, I also watched a making-of documentary, where the director discusses how the audience is supposed to want Jacob to be back with Sarah. I didn’t agree at the time; I liked Jezzie, probably because I like Elizabeth Peña. On my most recent viewing I noted that Jezzie is just plain mean. She tells Jacob that Sarah looks like a bitch, she can’t remember his kids’ names (not even Gabe, whom she refers to as “the dead one”), and is furious with Jacob for freaking out at a party after having terrifying hallucinations. I had difficulty finding images of her from the movie that weren’t sneering, but here are two I like:
Linda Cardellini fans, note that two actresses in the movie have played her mother: Elizabeth Peña in Strangeland, and Becky Ann Baker, who has a small role here as a nurse, in Freaks and Geeks. Comedy fans, note quick appearances by Lewis Black and Kyle Gass. It’s a classic, so check it out whether or not you get the references.