Carnival of Souls, although Ambrose Bierce's short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" predates that), but it remains regarded as one of the best of its sort, its influence felt in everything from movies like The Sixth Sense to video games like Silent Hill.
It's hard for me to formulate my thoughts on Jacob's Ladder. It is a mind-warp of an experience, jumping in and out of different timelines; blurring the line between fantasy, hallucination, and nightmares; and contemplating on such philosophical topics as life and death, grief, Heaven, and Hell. And it offers up no easy answers; watching the movie is not a comfortable experience. You will feel you've just had a bad acid trip, but it's undeniably effective as a surreal, paranoid thriller, a meeting in the Twilight Zone between Franz Kafka and David Lynch.
Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) had a bad experience in Vietnam. Something happened to himself and his unit, but he doesn't know what. At home, he has a doctorate but settles for works as a postman. Estranged from his wife Sarah (Patricia Kalember) after the death of their youngest son Gabe (Macaulay Culkin), he lives with co-worker Jezzie (Elizabeth Pena). Strange things begin happening. People seem to be following Jacob, his doctor dies in an explosion, and Jacob thinks he's seeing actual demons. Only his chiropractor Louis (Danny Aeillo) offers any solace or protection.
Director Adrian Lyne also films the movie in an off-kilter manner, so it's not only disorienting to follow, it's disorienting to watch. During a party thrown by Jezzie, Jacob grows increasingly frantic and afraid as it looks like a demon is dancing with her. The scene is shot mostly in the dark, lit only by flashing strobe lights, so we can't get a good look at what's happening. Shots become fragmented and jump around. Meanwhile, the angles on Jacob are slanted and off center, and we completely understand why he freaks out. Lyne also works in subtle imagery, like when a subway car passes Jacob, and all the passengers in the window look like they have no faces.
There are also moments that are just plain sad, like when Jacob finds a picture of Gabe and cries. More than anything else, Jacob feels alone with hardly anyone to turn to for help, and over the course of the movie, he is betrayed by others, including Jezzie and his Army buddies. Only Louis stands by him; at one point, Jacob says he looks like an angel. It is Louis who offers an explanation of Hell, citing philosopher Meister Eckhart:
"The only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won't let go of life, your memories, your attachments. They burn them all away. But they're not punishing you. They're freeing your soul. So, if you're frightened of dying and you're holding on, you'll see devils tearing your life away. But if you've made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the earth." That's about as accurate of a description of the movie you're going to get.