By the end of the eighties, Tobe Hooper's career in Hollywood was effectively over. Not only did his three-picture deal with Cannon Films result in three critical and commercial failures, the controversy over whether he or producer Steven Spielberg had directed Poltergeist tainted his reputation. With Spontaneous Combustion (1990), Hooper returned to low-budget, independent horror, but instead of a glorious return-to-form, the film went straight to video and was reported to be heavily compromised in post-production. For Hooper, it went down as another failure.
I consider myself a completest which is why I track down movies said to be bad if they're directed by a filmmaker I admire. When I was in England, I found this title in a market as a part of a "buy 2, get the 3rd free" deal, and since I haven't found this in the States, I figured it was worth the price. And I can say Spontaneous Combustion is better than Hooper's The Mangler and Crocodile, but then again, most things are.
Spontaneous Combustion would have worked as a short film because the first fifteen minutes are really quite stellar, but the rest is a mess. In 1955, young couple Brian (Brian Bremer) and Peggy Bell (Stacy Edwards) test an anti-radiation vaccine for the military by being exposed to a hydrogen bomb detonation. They emerge safe and healthy, and soon, it's learned Peggy is pregnant. A seemingly healthy boy is born nine months later. All appears happy for America's first "nuclear family."
Then, Brian and Peggy spontaneously combust. Thirty-four years later, Sam Kramer (Brad Dourif) notices something strange is afoot. He keeps getting migraines, everyone he knows is acting secretively, and people keep getting burned to a crisp after contact with him.
The first of the plot description is the best sequence in the movie. There's an underlying streak of dark humor watching this young couple being promised the American dream in the form of the perfect suburbia. Hooper plays on government propaganda with a black-and-white news reel the military is planning to show in theatres around the nation promoting the success of the experiment. The government is attempting to tell people that not only can they be kept safe from nuclear explosions, they can even thrive.
But it is all a lie. The perfect little suburban home cannot mask unforeseen consequences, genetic or otherwise, that bubble up in the couple's offspring. The government, with all its power and military might, cannot protect you from a flame that scorches from within. The sequence ends on an ominous note: the baby remains alive. What does this mean for the future?
That is a question that would have been best to end on because the answer is a rather lame conspiracy thriller filled with plot holes and implausibilities while leaving out vital information about character relationships and motivations. In short, not a whole lot makes sense. Too often, the viewer is left wondering who these people are and what they're doing. There are at least three doctors, and I kept getting them mixed up. Sam calls himself his birth name (David Bell) before he's learned it. Sooner or later, everyone in Sam's life is revealed to be in league together for something, but it's not really compellingly paranoid or suspenseful. In fact, it's rather dull; characters pop up to espouse something we already know, and occasionally, someone gets burned alive.
That's the frustrating aspect of the plot. Sam spends the entire movie figuring out what we learned in the opening scenes, and the movie never really develops beyond that. There are some elements hinted at, but they go nowhere. The main villain Orlander (William Prince) could have been used better. Wheelchair-bound, breathing through an oxygen tube in his nose, and with his urine bag hanging above him, he's an industrial capitalist who science has kept alive artificially at the price of his own humanity, but he only appears as a seemingly benevolent old man who gives a speech at the end to reveal a lame twist. I'm still not even sure what he wanted to accomplish, how he thought what he did would accomplish it, or what he was doing.
The fire effects are mixed. Sometimes they look good such as John Landis' cameo as a radio technician who pisses off Sam. Other times, they're obviously animation or a burning dummy. Dourif does what he can with the role, and he certainly pulls off the rage of the character, but he doesn't get much support from his co-stars or script. A nice touch, we first see him auditioning for what I think is Shakespeare's King Lear, a play concerned with the legacies of fathers and the violent effect they can have on the next generation. Likewise, Sam is playing a role for the cabal controlling every aspect of his life.
Spontaneous Combustion starts out great but peters out quickly. When focused on the experimentation and the military-industrial complex satire, it works, but the conspiracy and cover up is inept, cliche, and goes nowhere. With a coherent script, this could have been something. As it is, you should watch the first fifteen minutes and then turn it off.