Tobe Hooper returns to his independent roots with Spontaneous Combustion, a bizarre piece of shlock candy from 1990. This film features a screenplay by Hooper and Howard Goldberg and it is absolutely bonkers. While it does display the director’s sense of humour, it also lacks anything resembling cohesion. The first 20 minutes are quite something, though.
Spontaneous Combustion is frustrating because the bones of a good movie are here. It contends with nuclear panic and sets the stage well, with neat newsreel footage and a terrific look at a patriotic American attempt to wield atomic energy. The 1950s zest is right in Hooper’s wheelhouse.
The tale begins with Peggy (Stacy Edwards) and Brian (Brian Bremer) working in Nevada at the H-bomb testing site. They give birth to a son and promptly burst into flames. Their son, Sam (Brad Dourif), grows up without knowledge of his parents or their fiery deaths. Life is good. He has a girlfriend named Lisa (Cynthia Bain) and he’s at university.
Sam starts to develop some powers. He shoots fire out of a hole in his arm and has some issues with conducting energy. It seems to stem from his temper, which puts his relationship with Lisa at risk and inserts some bizarre characters into his life. Dr. Marsh (Jon Cypher) is among those with an interest in his capabilities.
Spontaneous Combustion is a mess. Hooper tries to tie various plot strands together, but he ends up doing too much and the pastiche doesn’t work. There are more questions than answers, even with an exposition-heavy back-end, and the flick lacks a sense of intrigue despite Sam’s nutty powers.
Dourif is all-out in his portrayal and he delivers the goods in an intensely committed B-movie performance. He sweats and screams. At times, he’s hanging on by a thread as fire literally shoots out of his body. Unfortunately, his histrionic efforts do little to save the romantic angle and Bain gives him little to work with.
While Hooper is no stranger to strange, the oddities on display in Spontaneous Combustion are difficult to absorb. His Invaders from Mars was a study in wild camp and Lifeforce was a lively and wild sci-fi romp. Even The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 managed to coax out a petrifying mythology. In this case, the amusing subtext is wasted and the longwinded plot is only offset by ineptitude.
At the core of Spontaneous Combustion is some sort of military conspiracy to make use of Sam’s gifts, with the protagonist proclaimed as America’s first truly nuclear man. Sadly, there’s no continuity and Hooper’s screenplay doesn’t help. There’s no rhyme or reason to the government’s monitoring of Sam and his powers don’t really appear again until later in his adult life.
While a film can overcome a difficult and even stupid plot (see Lifeforce), Spontaneous Combustion lacks the diverting spice to get the job done. The hammy acting and cornball special effects do account for a few chuckles, with flames shooting out of people’s sleeves and Dourif capable of igniting people when he gets pissed off.
The cinematography by Levie Isaacks is slick if ordinary, with some interesting lighting schemes tossed in for good measure. A lot of the more electric sequences are hard to follow, especially during the puerile culmination, and the layering of Stephen Brooks’ blistering visual effects is rough.
While there is some appeal to Spontaneous Combustion for those seeking out a “bad movie,” it’s hard to applaud Hooper’s effort as science fiction, horror or camp. It more disordered than embellished, even as Dourif blows the doors off the thing. There is a highlight worth mentioning, though: John Landis has a cameo that’s just plain funny.