By Ralph Novak
November 19, 1990 12:00 PM

Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Peña

Just when it’s on the brink of becoming one of the most disturbing, disorienting and penetrating psychological horror movies, Jacob’s Ladder—in a self-deflating few minutes—turns itself into a shaggy-dog story.

Because the ending is so dumb, it is indeed unexpected. Let’s not spoil the unpleasant surprise. It’s like the worst kind of chiller, where the writers can think of no way out of their story other than to have it turn out to be a dream.

In this case the writer is Bruce Joel Rubin, who also wrote Ghost (incredibly, he even includes a glowing-white-light stairway to Heaven, which is similar to a scene in Ghost). Before they lose control, he, director Adrian (Fatal Attraction) Lyne and editor Tom Rolf set up a vertiginous, tense mood in which Robbins, as a Vietnam vet, flashes back to a chaotic firefight, forward to a relationship with a woman, Peña (La Bamba), and backward again to his married life. Through all this, Lyne keeps using strange camera angles and bursts of loud sound to keep the audience edgy while Robbins encounters demonic images and characters from his past. He and some buddies start wondering if they were subjected unknowingly to Army drug testing.

Robbins, with his big, innocent face, is ideal to play this kind of victim. He’s also natural enough to keep things anchored even when Lyne has him descend into a Dante-ish hell of cadavers and cages.

As outlandish as it gets, you’re confident that Lyne and Rubin will pull things out with some kind of explanation, supernatural or not. Rather than that, they pull the rug out from under themselves. (R)