Spontaneous Combustion


As the imaginative excesses of the 80’s drew to a close, the established, iconic horror directors of the era that had seen their careers flourish in a decade loaded with special effects bonanzas and various awesome concepts that remain influential to filmmakers to this day, had to figure out their place in a brand new decade.
For example, John Carpenter would go on to see nearly a decade of raw creativity slowly wind down as he gradually lost his touch with the times while David Cronenberg would go on to reinvent himself entirely, effortlessly shifting from purveyor of venereal horror to Daily Mail bothering arthouse darling; and then there was Tobe Hooper…
Ever since Hooper roared onto the movie scene in 1974 with the incendiary Texas Chainsaw Massacre, his love of bizarre excess had led to a noticable deranged streak in his work that meant that meant that any form of quality control was a total crapshoot. Case in point: Spontaneous Combustion – a bonkers example of Hooper trying to spot weld David Cronenberg’s Scanners to Stephen King’s Firestarter and simply hope for the best.


After surviving an incredibly suspect experiment by the U.S. military to test the effects of atomic energy by essentially detonating it right on them, Peggy and Brian Bell are subsequently relocated to a picturesque suburbia as thanks tor serving their country. However, after Peggy falls pregnant and gives birth to a bouncing, baby boy, both she and her husband suffer a after effects far worse than a prolapsed anus or a weak pelvic floor when the two suddenly burst into flame for no obvious reason and are reduced to ashy corpses while their son gurgles on oblivious.
Years pass and little baby Sam grows up under the alias of David to be an anxiety prone young man who discovers that the radiation absorbed by his parents as given him the ability to cause people to “spontaneously combust” (if he’s causing it, surely it’s not spontaneous) whenever he loses his temper like a napalm spitting Hulk – don’t make me crispy, you wouldn’t like me when I’m crispy… However, as alarming as this is, a disturbing side effect is that whenever Sam roasts alive, he randomly flames on like the Human Torch with uncontrollable IBS, leaving him in a progressively mutilated state.
As Sam starts to realise that his entire life has been a complicated conspiracy orchestrated by industrialist Lew Orlander who is hoping to groom Sam into a living, breathing nuclear weapon with the help of various plants that including his girlfriend Lisa and his physician Dr. Marsh.
As his rage and his abilities both begin to burn out of control, Sam decides to get revenge for the decades of lies he’s had to endure, but will his body hold out long enough as his devastating power leaves him looking like an overcooked hamburger?


Spontaneous Combustion was the first movie Hooper made after his infamous, three picture deal with Cannon Films had supplied us with the chaotic pleasures of Lifeforce, Invaders From Mars and Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and while the Texan director no longer had the studio’s famously loose purse strings to back him up, that didn’t mean he was going to dial back on the lunacy. In fact, you kinda wish that Spontaneous Combustion was as anything-goes wacky as Lifeforce or TCM2, because at least those two movies, for all their candy-coloured eccentricities, made some fucking sense and you feel that nobody, during any point during production, thought to tap Tobe on the shoulder and mention that his plot is as easy to understand as a three year old transcribing latin.
Literally, if the plot was anymore all over the road it could be pulled over for drunk driving and it’s easy to lose entire threads thanks to oddly diverting directorial choices; for example, vital plot information is delivered during a scene where David frantically tries to call a radio psychic on a glowing pink mobile phone as he finally realises the extent of his powers while he inadvertently incinerates a cameoing John Landis for being a dick. In that one sentence, there’s so much going on, you actually manage to miss the important shit whole you’re openly wondering why so much funture in the room is sporting obnoxious glowing lighting all over it, or why the director of The Blues Brother is screaming while his kneecap is shooting out a jet of flame.


It almost as if Hooper simply has no patience to make the villain’s conspiracy hold together in the slightest and instead is trying to cover his tracks by making the rest of the film as baffling and overbearing as the budget will allow. At one moment a flaming hand emerges from a mirror because – well, I’m not entirely sure why, but it sure looks like he’s having fun having his hero roast assholes alive while all the other characters switch from ally to villain on a whim. It’s a pity then, that the audience doesn’t really share in Hooper’s glee, because he’s obviously having fun hurling all this hand-written bilge onto the screen despite it all being as appealing as snorting burnt hair – but a few things keep the film from being a complete loss. First is the central performance of Brad Dourif, a man who’s never given anything less than a hundred and ten percent to a role, even when it’s miles beneath him and he stalks through Hooper’s turd of a script while giving an incendiary (sic) series of rants as he’s caked in ever more extensive burn makeup. The other thing is Hooper’s staging of the burn sequences themselves, which, while lacking plausibility, have a showstopping sense of the ludicrous with people screaming as they wave their flaming rubber hands around in front their faces and shoot fire from their esophagus like Godzilla suffering a particularly violent sneeze.
Still, all the barbecuing of random supporting actors can’t stop Spontaneous Combustion spiralling into incomprehensible mulch as the whole film ends up feeling like a joke that only Hooper is in on as glowing, supernatural hands removing other character’s powers and murder attempts with syringes full of vibrant green goo build tonal critical mass that burns through your patience like a candle in an Inferno.


Aside from the odd robust combust, Spontaneous Combustion sadly marked the beginning of Tobe Hooper’s descent into a string of movies mostly each as ridiculous as the last as the quality of such previous triumphs as Texas Chainsaw, Salem’s Lot and Poltergeist were progressively put on the back burner.


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