Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, July 14, 2016

Director Report Card: Tobe Hooper (1990) Part 1

10. Spontaneous Combustion

I have no idea what Tobe Hooper’s Hollywood reputation was, following the frail box office performances of his Cannon films. Yet clearly having “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” and “Poltergeist” on your resume still counted for something. “Spontaneous Combustion” would burst onto theater screens in 1990, to weak box office. Hooper himself conceived of the project and co-wrote the screenplay. The film is generally considered the start of Hooper’s downfall as a filmmaker. Soon, his name would be associated less with iconic horror flicks and more with undistinguished schlock. Yet is “Spontaneous Combustion” truly deserving of this reputation?

In 1955, a newly married couple are chosen as test subjects for a new nuclear bomb shelter. They survive the blast, after which the woman realizes she’s pregnant. The baby seems normal at first. While only a few days old, the boy causes his parents to burst into flames. Thirty years later, that baby has grown up into Sam. He soon discovers that his ex-wife, former father-in-law, and new girlfriend are all part of a conspiracy meant to monitor his life. Exposure to nuclear radiation at such a young age has given Sam the power of pyrokinesis. He can cause others to burn with a thought, though his body deteriorates more every time he uses his powers. Now Sam hopes he can take revenge on those responsible before he spontaneously combust.

“Spontaneous Combustion” is a more-often-then-not dopey conspiracy thriller that is blatantly indebted to earlier stories. The general premise, of a person gifted with pyrokinectic powers due to government testing and pursued by said agency, is blatantly derivative of Stephen King’s “Firestarter.” Considering Hooper and King had been associated in the past, it’s unlikely that Tobe wasn’t aware of these similarities. A person cursed with strange powers by childhood tests, which have horrific effects upon the body when activated, also recalls David Cronenberg’s “Scanners.” These are only the most blatant sources, as “Spontaneous Combustion” also seems similar to any number of conspiracy thrillers. The result is a lesser movie made up of parts from better – or at least better known – films.

If there’s anything that differentiates “Spontaneous Combustion” from these films, it’s the story’s odd emphasis on pseudo-scientific concepts. The titular phenomenon is obviously repeatedly referenced, though the film’s condition bares little resemblance to the usually reported symptoms of SHC. Yet this is not the movie’s only appeal to new age beliefs in fringe science. Call-in radio shows devoted to clairvoyance and psychic powers constantly play in the background, eventually providing a minor purpose to the plot. These constant references to radio shows devoted to the unexplained makes a minor character being named Art seem like a deliberate call-out to Coast to Coast AM. There’s even a random shout-out to homeopathic medicine. I don’t know why “Spontaneous Combustion” throws in some many references to pseudo-science, other then it’s general popularity at the time.

“Spontaneous Combustion” stars Brad Dourif. Dourif is an Academy Award nominated actor who has been directed by respected filmmakers like Milos Forman, John Huston, David Lynch, and Michael Cimino. Yet by 1990, his appearance in genre fare like "Sonny Boy" and “Child’s Play” made him most associated with horror movies. Dourif’s work in “Spontaneous Combustion” is more in-line with his genre work then soft-spoken Billy Bibbit. Befitting the humidity of the story, Dourif sweats throughout most of the movie. As his character becomes more scorched, Dourif screams more. It’s an unhinged performance that is nonetheless entertaining in its wildness. In other words, Dourif does what he does best: Act like a sweaty crazy person.

Another weakness of “Spontaneous Combustion” concerns Sam’s character. At first, Sam seems like a reasonable guy, with a girlfriend and a decent job. As more of the conspiracy is revealed, he becomes more unhinged. Before too long, he’s causing his enemies to burst into flames without remorse. By the story’s end, he’s incinerating random bystanders with his psychic powers. So is Sam a hero or a monster? As his own body becomes more disfigured, Sam certainly starts to resemble a monster. Yet we, the audience, are still expected to sympathize with him. This is difficult, when he’s even threatening his innocent girlfriend with his fiery powers. The character is uncomfortably balanced between horror villain and superpowered protagonist.

One of the more interesting aspects about “Spontaneous Combustion” is its bizarre relationship with the fifties. An earlier scene in the film has a traditionally clean cut newsreel showing Sam’s parents, a happy, wholesome young couple. They trust their government and love each other. The film makes this connection more explicit but having its modern day characters drive classic cars and listen to old radio shows. Yet “Spontaneous Combustion” soon makes it clear that the U.S. military industry doesn’t have their best intentions in mind. By linking its conspiracy to the fifties, “Spontaneous Combustion” shows baby boomer nostalgia to be misplaced. Turns out, the government has never cared about its citizens.

“Spontaneous Combustion” fits comfortably within the conspiracy thriller genre. However, the movie’s special effects push it to the edge of horror. The burning effects can sometimes be suitably grisly. When Sam’s parents are incinerated, they’re burned to black husk, screaming all the while. When Sam rediscovers his powers, it has a detrimental effect on his own body. A birthmark on his arm grows into a weeping sore. By the end, he’s a blackened, half-melted walking corpse. When focused on charred, blistering skin, the special effects in “Spontaneous Combustion” can be effectively unnerving.

Yet the SFX in “Spontaneous Combustion” are not always this well orchestrated. The movie often utilizes some unimpressive visual effects. Sam causes an innocent radio technician – played by John Landis of all people – to catch fire. Landis sprays fire from his mouth before running around the radio studio, unconvincing effects adding fire to his body. The constantly spraying fire is often comical. While riding in a car, Sam spurts flames from under his coat. The bizarre juxtaposition causes chuckles. Another shot has Sam sitting in his car, waiting for the smoke to clear following another incineration. It’s fairly goofy stuff, the movie’s low budget often undermining the danger of the fiery subject.

There aren’t very many recognizable names in “Spontaneous Combustion,” with even Brad Dourif being better known as a character actor then a leading man. The supporting cast has few familiar faces among it. Cynthia Bain, who earlier appeared in “Pumpkinhead,” plays Lisa, Sam’s girlfriend. Bain mostly cries and heaves, given little room for other emotions by the script. Yet Bain still allows some minor charm to leak through, especially in the early scenes with Dourif. Veteran TV actor John Cyphers plays one of the movie’s central villains, wringing some decently sinister elements from his character. Melinda Dillon has some fun as the evil ex-wife. Dey Young, who I recognize from “Rock n’ Roll High School,” pops in for a minor part.

If you’re looking for any of Tobe Hooper’s trademarks in “Spontaneous Combustion,” you can spot a few. The movie’s climax is quite bonkers, escalating in ridiculousness in a way familiar to Hooper fans. Some of the filmmaker’s dark humor is sneaked in, such as “No Smoking” signs constantly popping up in the background. Hooper’s keen eye for production design is still noticeable. Lisa’s apartment is decorated in neon, which includes a flashing glass phone. The bad guy’s lair, meanwhile, features checkered floors and ominous arches, looking more like a mausoleum then a mansion. It’s all fairly overdone but at least it’s somewhat interesting.

If “Spontaneous Combustion” is a relatively ridiculous, overcooked movie, Graeme Revall’s musical score can be partially blamed for that. Revall reaches for the heavens on this one. Ominous Latin chanting, which sounds fairly close to Jerry Goldsmith’s “Omen” score, crops up from time to time. Revall’s score otherwise relies on throbbing synth that is not very distinctive. The fifties scores are scored in a more traditional fashion, which at least makes sense. Otherwise, the music is just another element that marks the film as cheesy and ridiculous.

“Spontaneous Combustion” is not terrible, as it features some of the same inspired lunacy Hooper employed in his eighties films. However, it’s also not very good. The special effects are incredibly uneven. The script seems uncertain of what kind of movie it wants to be while also being blatantly derivative of other stories. The musical score is silly and the performances are often pitched very highly. I imagine “Spontaneous Combustion” will most appeal to Brad Dourif fans, who probably never miss a chance for the actor to go nuts on camera. For the rest of us, it’s a sometimes unintentionally funny but often just muddled thriller. [Grade: C-]

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