I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Spontaneous Combustion

tn_spontaneouscombustionThis afternoon I’m going to see LIFEFORCE in 70mm. I’ll let you know how that goes at a later date. But while I do that please enjoy this review of a later Tobe Hooper movie with fewer naked space vampires in it. Or at least enjoy it to the extent that you could enjoy any review of this particular movie.

SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION is a 1990 Tobe Hooper movie that I remembered being basically unwatchable back in the VHS era. But I was stupid back then. Who knows? Sometimes you gotta re-evaluate your opinions.

And man, I was totally wrong, because I actually did watch this one. Technically speaking it was watchable. Otherwise my impression was pretty accurate.

One thing I had no memory of: the first 20 minutes take place in the 1950s. A young couple, Brian (Brian Bremer, SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT 5) and Peggy Bell (Stacy Edwards, THE BLING RING [Sofia Coppola version]), who could almost be the parents from BACK TO THE FUTURE, have volunteered for an experiment where they will try to survive a nuclear blast protected by a bunker and a radiation immunization. (TIP: Do not fucking take that gig, I don’t care if you’re trying to fund EL MARIACHI!) After surviving the test they’re lionized as American heroes in a news reel, declared radiation free and “the world’s first nuclear family.”

But behind the scenes we see the panic when it’s discovered that Mrs. Dale is pregnant. Because they had alot of time down there, it is pointed out. A big table full of men in uniforms (one of whom is Dick Butkus I believe) discuss whether or not she’ll have an abortion. In a nicely paranoid touch the final decision falls to a man whose face is always hidden in shadow, even at meetings. It seems like even if you ran into this guy in town or at the grocery store the light would always fall on him in such a way that his face is completely in the dark. His face is made up of the opposite of the contents of the briefcase in PULP FICTION.

(If his identity was later revealed, which I’m guessing it was, I didn’t follow it. So until someone explains it to me I’m gonna assume it was Breathless Mahoney in disguise.)

mp_spontaneouscombustionThe men decide sure lady, we will allow you to give birth. And she does. But immediately after the proud parents get to hold their baby for the first time they both burst into flames and are completely barbecued. Which is a bummer. This could really be a PR nightmare.

A scientist who studies the charred corpses seems downright delighted to be witnessing a rare case of “SHC – spontaneous human combustion.” He pokes into one of the burnt up heads and pulls out a tiny, shrunken skull. This must be a thing that supposedly happens in supposed cases of this phenomenon, but it goes unexplained here. Strictly for the SHC buffs, I guess. This one is for the fans, by the fans.

That whole section is actually pretty slick filmmaking from Hooper. But most of the movie is about that baby, Sam, now grown up into Brad Dourif. He’s working at a college, unaware of his unusual background. Like his peers, he’s preoccupied with protesting a nearby nuclear power plant that goes online tonight at midnight. He’s about to go online too, he just doesn’t know it.

There has been a rash of people dying alone in fires. Sam is freaked out because he knows these people. In fact, he had very recent arguments with every one of them. A series of people he gets heated with end up getting… heated. Oh shit! He realizes he’s a firestarter, but with no control over his powers at all. Sometimes his hand just turns into a torch. As the mess he’s in gets worse, he turns into a worse mess, his body kind of doing a poor man’s THE FLY, physically falling apart as his powers develop. And Dourif starts to get more into his wheelhouse, being a sweaty, yelling weirdo instead of the weinery milquetoast he started out as. When he’s limping around, moving weird, made up to be skeletal, he hints at the Hitchhiker/Chop Top type of character that can often steal a good Tobe Hooper film. Which, unfortunately, this is not.

By the way, don’t you think that even if “Spontaneous Combustion” wasn’t already a phrase that meant “people exploding,” that it would be a good name for a dance squad or a cappella group?

Like the great Hooper movies, this is kind of a slow descent from normal-ish life to feverish, gibberish-spewing madness. Like LIFEFORCE, it’s a story that devolves into a bunch of super powers and energy blasts. Toward the end it starts to unspool a conspiracy around Sam, including that his girlfriend Lisa (Cynthia Bain, PUMPKINHEAD) also has powers and was deliberately set up with him to look after him. He finds himself drawn to a strange mansion with checkerboard floors (possibly Twin Peaks influenced visuals I suspect) where a crazy old man (William Prince, NETWORK, THE JERICHO MILE, THE GAUNTLET), playing I-don’t-know-which character from the opening sequence (I’m guessing either the shrunken skull scientist or the shadow face guy), is thrilled to see him and considers him his son because it was his experiment. All this weirdness piqued my interest a little, as did the people-on-fire effects, but I had so completely lost investment in the story that I wasn’t really clear what the fuck was going on and didn’t feel much urge to figure it out.

It should be pointed out that, as far as alleged strange phenomenon go, people suddenly catching on fire for unexplained reasons is not one of the more cinematic ones. It’s just over too quick. I guess Hooper and his co-writer Howard Goldberg show some imagination in trying to come up with a cause for such a thing to happen, but not enough to make this exciting.

Hooper is a strange case. He directed a couple of my absolute favorite movies of all time, and a couple other ones that are good or interesting. That’s not even including his disputed direction of POLTERGEIST, one of the few ghost movies I can fully embrace and pretty much universally considered a classic by people on either side of the would/wouldn’t watch a movie with ‘CHAIN SAW’ in the title dividing line. And yet most of his filmography is just sloppy, lifeless stuff that you would never think came from a great director. This one is at least weird enough to be of some note, but it still fits into that last unfortunate category.

I didn’t even think about this until looking at his filmography right now, but SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION is incredibly depressing when you consider that it’s his follow up to THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2, which I consider an out-and-out masterpiece. This is only four years and three TV episodes (including the pilot of Freddy’s Nightmares) later, yet Hooper seems to be running out of creative energy and almost entirely spent of storytelling prowess. This kicked off a period of working on TV (including some pretty good shows, like Nowhere Man) and occasionally showing sparks of inspiration. Like I thought TOOLBOX MURDERS was pretty good, 14 years later. But never anything approaching TEXAS CHAIN SAW good. That Tobe Hooper I don’t expect to see again.

You never know, though. If people can just spontaneously combust for no reason then maybe Hooper could make a great movie out of nowhere. That certainly would light my fire.

see that’s a pun

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Thursday, September 15th, 2016 at 1:14 pm and is filed under Horror, Reviews, Science Fiction and Space Shit. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

32 Responses to “Spontaneous Combustion”

  1. As the world’s most preeminent Brad Dourif fan, not to mention a guy who’s always rooting for Tobe Hooper to get his mojo back, I attempt to rewatch this one every five years or so. Sometimes I get all the way through it. Last time I got about 20 minutes. Yep, this is a rough one.

  2. Is Brad Dourif’s last name really pronoucned “Do-reef”, like they do in the trailer for this? I always pronounced it” Dooriff”.

  3. You had it right, CJ, but “Brad Do-reef” goes well with “Tobay Hoopere,” which SUMMER SCHOOL made me think was the actual pronunciation of his name for like ten years.

  4. I would kill to see TITFORCE on the big screen. Preferably in 3DD.

  5. You’re also seeing APOCALYPSE NOW in 70mm right?

  6. I liked how Dourif’s character got more burnt up the longer he uses his powers. It always bugged me how most movie pyrokinetics seem immune to fire even though their skin should be the same as everyone else. Aside from that, not much to write home about. Except Vern. He can write home about anything.

  7. onthewall – saw APOCALYPSE NOW last Sunday, ALIENS this Sunday.

  8. Will there be an AN review at some point? I remember you saying that screening would have been the first time you’ve seen it.

  9. Back in the day, I was a huge fan of all those Horror Guys. Hooper, Craven, Carpenter, Cunningham, etc.

    They all seemed to go through a real bad rut around the same time, and they all seemed to get out of it within a few years of each other too, making a handful of mid/late career gems. All but Hooper…who somehow got left behind.

    I always wanted to revisit this one. All I remember about it was I was bored shitless when I rented it in middle school. But now Brad Douriff is one of my favorite actors, and I believe I didn’t know who he was back then, or at least the full scope of who he was.

    Judging from this review, my 7th grade opinion was right on the money. Always trust your inner 7th grader, cause they tell it like it is. So, next time I’m in need of a Douriff fix, I’ll either a) watch one I haven’t seen yet or b) watch WISE BLOOD again.

  10. The only thing I remember about this one beyond a sense of disappointment is someone waving his arm while it was on fire, and due to the shitty compositing, the fire pointed wherever he was pointing his arm, instead of upwards as fire would.

    Hooper’s career until the late 80s is near impeccable. Also, neither Hooper nor Spielberg actually directed Poltergeist – it was clearly secretly directed by Stuart Gordon.

  11. A borderline incomprehensible mess, but man that phone booth scene is some Class A, high potency Dourif.

  12. I feel like Tobe Hooper has one more great horror film left in him. Or, more accurately I suppose, I hope he does. I mean, he’s gotta right?!?

  13. onthewall – Yeah, I’m sort of taking my time with it and watched HEARTS OF DARKNESS for further understanding, but there will definitely be a review at some point.

  14. dreadguacamole – I noticed that, it was really weird, but I also wasn’t sure how they did it because it matched up with the arm movement so well but it seems too early to have been digital.

  15. I’ve read/heard that in most reported cases of “spontaneous human combustion” no one actually saw the person catch on fire – they just find the charred remains of part of the body.

    The leading theory seems to be that the person was dead/unconscious/immobile in a room where a fire (e.g. from a lit cigarette) spread out of control, and slowly burned the person’s body away like the wax in a candle, only extinguishing when the oxygen in the room was finally used up – leaving only an arm or feet or something. Someone finds this the next day and think the person must have just exploded into flame.

    This review reminds me that I should rewatch DICK TRACY at some point.

  16. Man that sucks.

  17. Oh, fuck – what!?

  18. Question, did Hooper live up to his potential as a horror movie director?

  19. He gave us LIFEFORCE right after 2 stone cold genre classics and THE FUNHOUSE (which funnily enough I was watching this past thursday night). As far as I’m concerned that was more than enough.

  20. Doesn’t matter if he didn’t, he gave us TEXAS CHAIN SAW and TEXAS CHAINSAW PART 2. To say nothing of solid genre entries like POLTERGEIST (don’t give a shit who REALLY directed it), FUNHOUSE, and LIFEFORCE. Even two of his ‘failures’ are more interesting and entertaining than people give him credit for (SALEM’S LOT and the INVADERS FROM MARS remake).

  21. Whoops, didn’t load the page to see Broddie’s comment before posting so you can skip my prior post and I’ll just say ‘What he said’ in regards to Broddie’s post.

    Still this news stings even more so soon after Romero’s passing.

  22. He directed the greatest and most influential horror movie ever made. What else did he have to do? “Sure, Obama was the first black president, but how many other countries was he the first black president of? Probably only two or three. What a waste.”

  23. Not only that like Romero with NOTLD he made his influential horror classic on his own terms. May they both R.I.P.

    Can’t believe I just typed that :(

  24. I have not had a surplus of positive male role models in my life, so I had to look elsewhere to see examples of the kind of man I might strive to become. That’s why I always looked up to the Masters of Horror. To a man, they were authentic, bold, independent, smart, and completely true to themselves. Even when they tried to sell out, they failed, because the unique fire that burned within them could not be extinguished or hidden. I learned so much from not just their work but from the way they carried themselves and stuck to their guns, even/especially when the world at large treated their work like immoral trash. That’s still the kind of man I want to be if I ever grow up. Every time we lose one, I legitimately feel like I’m losing a distant but beloved uncle. They’ve certainly had more impact on me than my real uncles ever had.

  25. Amen, Mr M.

    Such shitty news.

    James Gunn, John Carpenter Pay Tribute to Tobe Hooper

    The horror legend died Saturday at age 74

  26. Great responses guys. I wish he was still alive to make another classic.

    Though I’m not sure TCM is the most influential horror film ever but I certainly wouldn’t tell somebody they are wrong either.

  27. Powerful words by everyone, and wonderful to see so many celebrities point out he was a good and kind man as well as being a visionary artist.

    Hooper’s been on my mind alot lately as I’ve recently been making my way through all the TCM’s. I’ve long been one of those guys who felt he was a one-hit wonder and couldn’t have possibly directed Poltergeist. But watching TCM2 for the first time gave me a new kind of respect for the man – it’s outrageous and wild and ballsy as hell; a possible FU to the studios (and the fans), and definitely a statement from a filmmaker who could have rested on his laurels and infinitely repeated his genre-creating success. TCM2 literally(!) blows his greatest creation sky high; it’s a fascinating film from a fascinating mind.

  28. It’s very strange to lose both Romero and Hooper in the same year and what a total bummer.

  29. “With God as my witness, I do not hate the sound of your voice.”

    Thinking about Hooper’s work today – that line from THE FUNHOUSE is one I keep coming back to, because who the fuck else would have thought to put such a genuinely tender moment between father and malformed murder son in the middle of a golden age slasher flick? Like Craven and Romero, the man illuminated the darker contours of human life on this insane planet

  30. …and that’s a genuinely precious service to render. Sorry, I tippity-tap this shit out on my phone and sometimes I get butterfingers.

    Troo Hooperheads know EATEN ALIVE and THE FUNHOUSE scythe that overblown Amblin amusement park attraction POLTERGEIST to ribbons, btw.

  31. I was thinking about this just now. There are two covers for horror movies I always saw as a kid and were, for some reason, always afraid to rent these movies. One of them was The Fog and the other was The Funhouse. Something about that clown with the axe made me be like “Nope, not watching this.”

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