In Jacob's Ladder, director Adrian Lyne doesn't scare you he gooses you. The movie, a piece of luridly baroque metaphysical trash, is about a Vietnam veteran, Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins), who keeps getting jolted by demonic visions. On the subway, he sees a homeless man sleeping on one of the seats; just under the man's coat is a small, glistening phallic tail. Later, a subway train almost runs Jacob down, and he looks up and sees faceless phantoms staring at him from the windows. In the middle of a party, he saunters out to the dance floor, the strobe light going full force (just in case there's any doubt this is a head film), and he catches glimpses of a griffin-like creature this time with a really big tail slipping around the other dancers in an orgasmic frenzy.
Okay, dude, who spiked the lemonade? Jacob's Ladder, which serves up horror in subliminal, jump-cut flashes, is a gruesome ''psychological'' thriller a bad acid trip of a movie and it may appeal to those who got off on the druggy, soft-focus demonism of Angel Heart. Yet the film is just highfalutin hackwork two hours of anything-for-a-shock unpleasantness. The script, by Bruce Joel Rubin (Ghost), has been kicking around Hollywood for nearly 10 years. (According to reports, it's the script everyone loved but no one dared to film.) Rubin's conception might have worked on screen, but we'll never know, since Lyne (Flashdance, 9 1/2 Weeks), who finally proved himself a genuine filmmaker in Fatal Attraction, is up to his old high-gloss tricks. In Jacob's Ladder, he directs like a sadistic psychiatrist under contract to MTV.
Is Jacob going insane, or is there some malevolent force attempting to control him? Or could it be that his entire life is a hallucination, that he's already (gulp!) dead? The movie opens with a Vietnam flashback: The day Jacob's platoon smoked some mysteriously tainted dope and witnessed (or perhaps took part in) a atrocity that has been wiped from Jacob's memory. The film then cuts to New York, where Jacob, having returned from the war (it's the early '70s), works as a mailman and lives in a grungy flat with his girlfriend, the tough, lusty Jezzie (Elizabeth Pena). Their playfully erotic, squabbling relationship is the one thing in Jacob's Ladder that feels vaguely of this earth.
For a while, the mystery of what's happening to Jacob is intriguing; you're eager to uncover the secret of his schizophrenic-nightmare world. In addition to phantoms and gremlins, he sees men with quivering, rubbery heads. And he keeps recalling his now-defunct marriage and his young son, who was hit by a car and killed. Yet Jacob's various traumas seem barely (if at all) related, even as they come rolling out on top of one another. Jacob's Ladder is the nightmare as Rube Goldberg machine. Lyne bombards us with omens and portents, but they aren't rooted in anything, and so the audience remains in a state of arbitrary, floating anxiety.
Finally, Jacob is approached by one of his former platoon members, who has been having similar nightmares. So, it turns out, has most of the platoon. I won't reveal any more except to say that the movie uses America's conduct during the Vietnam War in a phony, pious way as a moralistic hook for exploitation fantasies.
As Jacob, Tim Robbins has the rubbery lips, triangular nose, and small, shining eyes of a giant baby. Sporting spectacles and what looks like a mid-' 60s Beatle haircut, he gives the character a flower-child softness, and when he gets a chance to relax and clown around with the sultry Elizabeth Pena, the movie briefly comes to life. But Robbins can't do here what Mickey Rourke, with his imperiously dreamy smirk, did for Angel Heart that is, give you a break from the heebie-jeebies. Jacob's Ladder is so ''dark'' it sucks Robbins right down with it. By the time Jacob is being strapped to a bed and wheeled down a hospital corridor strewn with bloody limbs, it's hard to care whether the Orwellian image is a hallucination or not. You just want out. C-