The Best Military Horror Films Are Set Back Home
‘Jacob’s Ladder’ and ‘House’ use the veteran’s experience as a backdrop for terror
War can be Hell for survivors. Some soldiers are just never the same afterwards. And adjusting back to civilian life can be its own special kind of horror.
A kind of horror Hollywood has eagerly exploited for years. Most military horror films pit soldiers against monsters. Think Godzilla or Dog Soldiers. But in the best movies of the genre, soldiers fight themselves.
Take Jacob’s Ladder—director Adrian Lyne’s 1990 exploration of madness and death in the wake of the Vietnam War. Director Steve Miner’s House from 1986 deals with the same themes but is somewhat less successful.
In Jacob’s Ladder, Tim Robbins plays a Vietnam veteran trying to get by in New York City. He’s divorced and his youngest son is dead. He’s haunted—not only by the war—but also by the peaceful life he once lived.
House follows William Katt as Roger Cobb—a Vietnam vet also struggling with guilt after a failed marriage and losing a son. Cobb takes over the old family home after his aunt’s suicide.
It happens that Cobb is a famous horror author working on a memoir of his time in Vietnam. He hopes that moving back to his childhood home will help him put to rest the ghosts of his past so he can finish the book.
The house has other plans.
Both film’s protagonists and setups are similar, but in the end they’re very different movies. Robbin’s Jake Singer runs from problems, questions his sanity and too often takes the path of least resistance.
Katt’s Cobb faces his problems head on. He fights the supernatural with guns, grenades and all the tactics the U.S. Army taught him.
Jacob’s Ladder is a taut psychological thriller and a genuinely terrifying film. House is Evil Dead 2 in the suburbs.
Sure, House is fun. Watching a man with serious military training go to war against the monsters haunting his home—and his mind—is plenty entertaining. But Jacob’s Ladder is a far better film.
The writing, directing and acting are superior. The tone is perfectly dark. The filmmakers pulled imagery from Gustave Dore paintings, the works of Francis Bacon and An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.
House has George Wendt and surreal action scenes. And, yes, a happy ending. It never captures the feeling of powerlessness many returning veterans describe. Like so many 1980s creature features, it’s a power fantasy dressed up as a horror movie.
House spawned three sequels. Jacob’s Ladder has no sequels. It didn’t need any. The final frame is the final word. Its legacy is also far more lasting.
Its look inspired the hit video game series Silent Hill. The popular horror game’s Hellish backgrounds, twitching faceless demons and guilt-ridden protagonists all come from Jacob’s Ladder. Silent Hill 2’s James Sunderland looks a lot like Robbins as Jacob Singer.