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Shadowvision: “JACOB’S LADDER”

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Welcome to Shadowvision, a regular column in which Fangoria.com revisits modern horror films in black-and-white. The purpose is to analyze these films through a new lens, seeing if the classically informed viewing experience will give a new angle to familiar images. If you’d like to watch along at home, it’s simple: go into your TV settings and desaturate the picture completely, then adjust the contrast and brightness to fit either standard or high definition.

When looking for films to revisit in black and white, sometimes the visual style is just not enough to warrant a re-examination. Sure, a distinct visual landscape is important, especially to the effectiveness of the experience as a whole, but the plot also has to have an operative aspect in the proceedings. Sometimes, it’s a classically informed story, one that draws inspiration or tone from golden age horror, and other times, it’s an even more classical tale, sometimes even with ancient ideas of the battle between the light and the dark. And when this writer can find that balance between relevant visuals and storytelling, the overall Shadowvision experience transcends the initial appeal of the experiment.

As die-hard fans know, JACOB’S LADDER is a good marriage between excellent visuals (especially for scenes of heavy light and darkness) as well as storytelling, with the subject matter and ultimate reveal working in tandem with those visuals. For a film that has as many mind-bending elements to them as well as flat-out horror moments, there’s a certain element to the story that is reminiscent of many TWILIGHT ZONE-esque morality tales, namely those that dealt with death explicitly. And considering the look and atmosphere of the piece, the scarier scenes of the film already carry a polarizing lighting scheme, which would no doubt be even more haunting in black and white.

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Technically speaking, the film doesn’t need much adjustment as far as contrast or brightness goes. In fact, you might want to make it a point not to adjust the brightness at all, as the film’s darker scenes will suffer by the heightened artificial light around the edges. And as for contrast, you can go higher if you’d like, but at your own risk as the lighter scenes might risk being blown out completely. For most HD/SD set-ups, a standard desaturation of color should do the trick.

Off the bat, it was clear that JACOB’S LADDER was not going to work as well as I might have anticipated in black and white. For starters, the cinematography by Jeffrey L. Kimball, while striking at points, never clicks as a whole in black and white, and even the urban sprawl scenes aren’t quite suited for the format. The monochrome presentation also tones down some of the more shocking practical SFX punctuations, including some of the more gut-wrenching gore from the Vietnam scenes as well as the famous “dance scene” climax. And furthermore, even the performances of JACOB’S LADDER feel too modern to fit into a classical mindset, with the precise pacing of the movie feeling utterly contingent on a color medium.

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However, it’s not all a bust with JACOB’S LADDER in black and white, as several elements are actually bolstered by the experience. The atmosphere of the piece, especially the building paranoia, is heightened by black and white, which makes many of the stranger scenes all the more terrifying. Furthermore, the film’s disorienting visual cues pay off in a much stronger way, with certain visual effects (especially ones in moving vehicles) more effective and less overtly false in monochrome. And the industrial designs of many of the scenes taking place in “the present” look much more intimidating and foreboding in black and white, especially once the story blurs the lines of reality and the surreal.

Yet the most effective sequences in black and white are also the most effective sequences in color, lending itself to the universal appeal of those scare scenes. The bathtub sequence is equally terrifying with or without color, with the constricted point-of-view plus the nightmare logic of the sequence resonating in either case. Furthermore, the demonic reveals feel never quite benefit from black and white yet don’t take away from the genuinely frightening imagery either. In fact, the more quiet moments of JACOB’S LADDER are what really stand out in black and white, whether it be the suspense leading up to a scary scene, Jacob’s explicit dream sequences or the interpersonal relationships between Jacob and his friends.

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In a way, JACOB’S LADDER may not be a film known for its use of color in a strong, memorable way, but is utterly tied into its use of color. While the intentional use of shadowing is impressive and meticulous, the film itself allows the color to exist without emphasis, but in doing so, the opportunities for brighter or deeper cinematography is limited. Instead, the film’s color scheme is much closer to that of a painting, with the darker, muted colors existing throughout, creating an almost surreal aura surrounding the narrative from the start. In this way, the film still remains classically informed, but not in a way where black and white can radically change the experience.

While JACOB’S LADDER will remain an affecting and creepy genre classic in either color or black and white, the latter experience doesn’t offer enough to suggest anything new or different with the film. Instead, you’re essentially repeating the same cinematic engagement with JACOB’S LADDER, and in doing so, you might as well see the film through it’s intended lens. After all, the visuals in the film are as strong as the story itself, and while it’s not necessarily a Shadowvision standout, that’s an impressive feat in its own right.

Recommended for Black and White Consumption?: No.

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About the author
Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Managing Web Editor for FANGORIA and STARLOG, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, his debut novel "THE I IN EVIL", and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.
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