Horror director Tobe Hooper's latest fiasco is a work of nonsense called SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION. Clumsy, confusing, and forgettable, the film tells the story of David (played as an adult by the ever-demented Brad Dourif), a man with an unwanted ability to make himself and others catch
fire. Beginning in Nevada, during the hydrogen-bomb testing of the 50s, and ending in the present day with the start-up of a nuclear power plant, SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION has a science-fiction plot: as the film opens, a typical 50s couple is being used in government experiments involving a serum
that may or may not immunize the human body against the effects of radiation. The couple is exposed to an explosion, then monitored to observe the effects of the drug. It seems to have worked, and--except for one complication (the woman has become pregnant)--the experiment is called a success.
After the child is born (named David, and bearing a odd birthmark on his hand), things start to get strange. The baby appears normal until he is brought to his mother, whereupon she catches fire and burns to death, as does the father. The deaths--in which a mysterious man named Olander seems to be
involved--are declared the result of spontaneous human combustion. The film then jumps to the present, when the now-adult David is a teacher and anti-nuclear activist. A new nuclear power plant is about to open in the area, and David, his girl friend (Cynthia Bain), and many others are opposed to
it. David is an unusual fellow: his body temperature is always 100 degrees, and his life seems to be dominated by the decrepit old grandfather of his ex-wife. Things get even weirder when a woman David has argued with is found burned to death. He begins having bizarre visions of his unknown
parents and, worst of all, his arm becomes a kind of flame thrower. As David tries to survive and to uncover the conspiracy-obscured truth of the 50s experiments, charred bodies drop like flies; policemen, doctors, radio station engineers, and security guards are among David's blackened victims as
he helplessly rampages through the streets of California. In hot pursuit is the mysterious Dr. Marsh (Jon Cypher), who desperately tries to inject David with a phosphorescent serum that will destroy him. Finally, David discovers that his "gift" is a side effect of the experiments, for which his
ex's grandfather is responsible. (He also discovers that his girl friend possesses the same talent for torching things.) In a final confrontation (as the new nuclear plant goes online), David uses his unfortunate power to engulf himself and the old man in flames, but his work is not finished, and
he virtually comes back from the grave to save his girl friend from Dr. Marsh and from his ex-wife. Before disintegrating into a puddle of glowing liquid, David saps his girl friend's fire, relieving her of the "gift" of spontaneous combustion.
As complicated and confusing as all this is, the synopsis above represents only half the story. The film features several twists and subplots that are impossible to fully explain, as well as moments of such sheer stupidity that no explanation would suffice. Hooper (POLTERGEIST; THE TEXAS CHAINSAW
MASSACRE) seems to be going for the old mad-scientist and government-experiment-gone-awry plot lines, but has little success with either. The film's opening is relatively strong, with some very nicely re-created 50s "newsreel" footage, and some early scenes that evoke a pleasantly satirical mood.
But once Hooper unleashes the story fully, the film disintegrates like one of David's victims. Badly edited and shot with no apparent rhythm or pace, SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION becomes increasingly hard to watch. Characters wander around for no reason; major plot developments are handled with quick
fixes of badly written dialog. The special effects are shoddy (David's fake fire-spewing arm is particularly bad), and the tedium of watching one flaming body after another is matched in dullness by the incessant melodramatics.
Still, Dourif is fun to watch (he is a brilliantly weird actor, whose strongest work can be seen in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST and in John Huston's underrated gem WISE BLOOD), and there is one death scene--the spontaneous combustion of a radio engineer played by filmmaker John Landis--that's
worth viewing. To see one of the most undeservedly successful directors in Hollywood blow up before your very eyes is a perverse treat for film fans. As for Hooper, his talent has remained dormant since 1973, when he made THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. That film, a raw horror masterpiece, seems to
have been a fluke, and SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION continues Hooper's downward slide. Missing the strong opportunity presented by the story's political subtext, as well as many possibilities for some good suspense, Hooper has again slapped together the kind of horror film that gives the genre a bad
name, and it's clear that he should no longer be mentioned in the company of such horror masters as John Carpenter, George Romero, or David Cronenberg. Hooper is simply not a good filmmaker, and SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION is a bust. (Excessive violence, profanity, adult situations, substanceabuse.)
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- Released: 1990
- Rating: R
- Review: Horror director Tobe Hooper's latest fiasco is a work of nonsense called SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION. Clumsy, confusing, and forgettable, the film tells the story of David (played as an adult by the ever-demented Brad Dourif), a man with an unwanted ability to… (more)