DOC’S 5-FILM TOBE HOOPER RETROSPECTIVE #1: SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION [1990]

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Directed by:
Written by: , ,
Starring: , , ,

USA

AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY [REGION ‘A’ ONLY] AND DVD

 RUNNING TIME: 97 mins

REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic

 

1955 Nevada Desert, Hydrogen Bomb Testing Site: Peggy and Brian are experimented on by the US Army to see the effects of exposure to atomic energy whilst testing a nuclear bomb. The test seems to go well, but Peggy became pregnant, and, after she gives birth to Sam, both parents spontaneously combust. 35 years later and Sam is a teacher living a seemingly normal life with an ex-wife out to take him to the cleaners but also with a nice new girlfriend named Lisa. However, an increasing number of situations occur in which he loses his temper, and soon those who’ve been touched by him begin to mysteriously burst into flames and die….

I usually review a few favourite horror films specifically for Halloween, though last year I made it more ‘themed’ and did write-ups on some ghost movies. I though that I’d do something different again this year, and do several films all from one director. My initial plan was to do George Romero, but then I realised that we had quite a few Romero reviews on this website and thought that Tobe Hooper, a filmmaker who’s spent almost the entirity of his career in the horror genre but who hasn’t so far been represented as much on HCF [only Salem’s Lot, Poltergeist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part Two – reviewed by yours truly], and Death Trap – reviewed by both Bat and Matt, as far as I can see. He’s also somebody whose career seemed to drastically nosedive quite quickly and he spent more than half of it making straight-to-video/ DVD or TV movies, The Toolbox Murders not really reviving his career despite its good quality and reception. I find that interesting when you consider that most of his contempories like Wes Craven, George Romero and the thankfully-still-with-us John Carpenter kept on making films that got into cinemas for far longer, and I’ve wondered for some time if his non-cinema releases were all as as bad as all that. So here we have it, a five film retrospective spanning the entirety of his career and which will definitely cover the good, probably the bad, and possibly even the ugly too. You’ll also get to read a review of one film that has’t even been released in the UK yet.

Spontaneous Combustion seems to be generally regarded as a load of old rubbish. It was the first of his DTV films after his interesting but seriously money-losing three-picture deal at Cannon, and as with one other of these reviews, I can’t tell you much else about the conception and making of the film because such information doesn’t seem to be readily available to read, but I’m sure that I’ll find enough to say, especially with regard to this particular effort which I didn’t find to be anywhere near as bad as its reputation. Despite what you’ve probably heard, it’s certainly not a rip-off of Firestarter – apart from the main character’s condition the two films are very different. It actually reminded me more of 1981’s Strange Behaviour with its odd little town dominated a large nuclear plant, the way the story unfolds, and the eclectic design which makes it hard to date. The plot becomes surprisingly convoluted and may even lose some viewers who just want to see lots of people burn to a crisp, though there’s a decent amount of that too. The various story elements don’t always cohere and there is some very silly stuff that’s hard to ignore. But on the other hand you have Brad Dourif, who’s something of an HCF favourite, in a rare lead role proving what a range he has whilst still projecting that offbeat screen persona and that sweaty anger that nobody else can do as well, I mean he seems to sweat for real several times in this movie!

It’s actually 22 minutes before Dourif actually appears on screen but the lengthy preamble is genuinely well done even though you have to put up with some lousy acting from Stacey Edwards and Brian Bremmer as Sam’s parents. I guess the shots of flashing lights appearing on Earth as seen from space representing the effects of the atomic bomb tests may seem cheesy to some modern viewers who’ve grown up with CGI, but a far bigger budgeted production of the time would probably have handled this in a similar way. The use of actual footage afterwards works well though and then we get a nice black and white parady of a government propaganda film all about the couple replete with tacky voiceover going on about this genuine nuclear family. Also a little bit funny but probably unintentionally so, is when we keep seeing shots of an obviously bad guy in shadow watching the pair, once with ominous music! Sam is born, his only ‘deformity’ seeming to be a large birthmark at the back of his hand. However, when mum accidently bites off and swallows part of a thermometer that’s just touched Sam, the two are set on fire and burn to death, a scene which has an amusing coda of a doctor ripping open a scorched head and pulling out a tiny skull!

35 years later and Sam seems to be doing okay despite having a horrid ex-wife called Nina after all his money. However, anger can bring on fire, and seems to do so increasingly often. The first time we see this happen is when he’s threatened with the police because he forgetfully exited a restuarant without paying his bill but still went back in to settle up. Then he goes to shake a doctor’s hand and static electricity forms. People whom he’s touched start winding up dead. Girlfriend Lisa seems to want to stick by him, but is she all that she seems? What’s going on with this hospital where there seem to be making some kind of drug? Why is somebody going around killing people with a syringe containing glowing green goop which looks like it’s been stolen from a certain Herbert West? What does sinister industrialist Lew Orlander have to do with all this? And is the local nuclear power plant which has just been switched on involved? There’s quite a lot to keep track of and not everything is satisfactorily answered, something not helped by odd though fun tangents like a psychic radio DJ who tries to contact the first victim on air but is unable to do so because, and I quote: “maybe she’s already been reincarnated or gone to another dimension”. In fact it all seems a bit thrown together which means that the twists in the story – and there are several – don’t have the impact they should. Hooper along with his co-writers Howard Goldberg and Cynthia Bain should be commended for trying to give us a layered story and not constantly attempt to frighten or shock, but it seems that they hadn’t thought things through, and towards the end do some strange things like seeming to ape Shocker of all things, while the very final scene seems very rushed and has little of the emotional effect that it ought to.

The people on fire are well done [sorry] though of course you can sometimes tell when dummies are substituted. There’s not a lot of graphic detail and I can’t understand for the life of me how this film still has an ’18’ certificate in the UK considering how graphic, say, the Final Destination films are and yet they get a ’15’. John Landis has quite a memorable cameo as one victim who recieves fire through the phone which results in fire then streaming from his kneecaps, but how exactly is fire able to travel through phone lines and then erupt in huge jets from the receiver’s earpiece? O well, it looks cool. Just a bit more sense would still have helped in some places as would a decision made whether to take the proceedings seriously or not instead of us being left with a film that doesn’t seem to really settle on a tone, though Hooper’s films do often seem to exist somewhere between goofiness and earnestness anyway. It’s also a bit lazy at times which creates some odd anomilies, such as when Sam has visions of his late parents. Later on when Sam watches some home movies, we see the exact same shots from those visions.

One area of Spontaneous Combustion which really did surprise and impress me was its look. Cinematographer Levie Isaacks uses vivid lighting, be it blue, pink or something else, to illuminate many scenes and the interior design is mininal but slightly strange and almost looking out of time. And Graeme Revell’s synthesiser score is one of his best of this period of his career and is downright experimental at times, like the bizarre chords played during an emotional confession scene which would normally be scored in a far different manner. Aside from Dourif the acting is a real mixed bag, for example Dey Young’s good femme fatale act balanced out by Melinda Dillon’s dreadful German accent. Yet despite its many issues Spontaneous Combustion is no disaster. It sometimes genuinely surprises and it has a bit of heart in there. Even some of its more careless aspects have a sort of quirky charm to them. And somebody had to make a film about spontaneous combustion some day – if not necessarily one that also functions as an anti-nuclear statement! It could have been a great deal worse….

Rating: ★★★★★½☆☆☆☆

Dr Lenera
About Dr Lenera 2015 Articles

I’m a huge film fan and will watch pretty much any type of film, from Martial Arts to Westerns, from Romances [though I don’t really like Romcoms!]] to Historical Epics. Though I most certainly ‘have a life’, I tend to go to the cinema twice a week! However,ever since I was a kid, sneaking downstairs when my parents had gone to bed to watch old Universal and Hammer horror movies, I’ve always been especially fascinated by horror, and though I enjoy all types of horror films, those Golden Oldies with people like Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee probably remain my favourites. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy a bit of blood and gore every now and again though, and am also a huge fan of Italian horror, I just love the style.

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