Today, I’m going to take a look at Tobe Hooper’s bizarre 1990 film, Spontaneous Combustion.
The plot of Spontaneous Combustion is summarized on IMDb as follows:
A young man finds out that his parents had been used in an atomic-weapons experiment shortly before he was born, and that the results have had some unexpected effects on him.
Spontaneous Combustion was co-written and directed by Tobe Hooper, who was responsible for classics of the horror genre like Poultergeist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. However, he is also known for some of his later, cheesier works, like The Mangler, Lifeforce, Invaders From Mars, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, a couple of which I have previously covered here on the blog.
The cast of Spontaneous Combustion includes Brad Dourif (One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Mississippi Burning, Deadwood, Child’s Play, Senseless, Dune, Body Parts), Cynthia Bain (Pumpkinhead), Jon Cypher (Masters of the Universe), William Prince (Spies Like Us, The Stepford Wives, Network), Melinda Dillon (Harry and The Hendersons, Magnolia, Close Encounters of the Third Kind), and Dick Warlock (Pumpkinhead, The Abyss, Halloween II).
The cinematographer for the film was Levie Isaacks, whose other credits include The Guyver, Tooth Fairy 2, The Dentist, Leprechaun, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, Children of the Corn II, and numerous episodes of shows like Tales From The Crypt, Dawson’s Creek, CSI:NY, and Malcolm In The Middle.
The editor for Spontaneous Combustion was David Kern, also who cut Maniac Cop, Maniac Cop 2, Maniac Cop 3, It’s Alive III, and Class of 1999 II, served as an additional editor on Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Monster Trucks, Kong: Skull Island, and Captain America: Civil War, and was a sound editor on Purple Rain, Hook, and Rush Hour.
The musical score for the film was composed by Graeme Revell, a prolific film scorer whose credits include The Crow, Daredevil, Sin City, Pitch Black, Freddy vs. Jason, From Dusk Till Dawn, Suicide Kings, Street Fighter, Tank Girl, Hard Target, and The Craft, among many others.
The team of effects workers on Spontaneous Combustion included William Tony Hooper (Demon Knight, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2), Stephen David Brooks (The Mangler, Spaceballs, Lifeforce), Michael R. Jones (Ghostbusters, The Return of Swamp Thing, I Come In Peace), and John Dykstra (Star Wars, Spider-Man, Lifeforce, Batman & Robin).
The inspiration for Spontaneous Combustion is the phenomena of spontaneous human combustion (SHC). This is a term to describe cases where a human body combusts without an apparent external source of ignition. In contrast to the claims of the film, reported cases of SHC are very uncommon, to the point that there is significant doubt that the phenomena exists at all.
Brad Dourif’s character in the film is shown to have the power of pyrokinesis, which is defined as the ability to create and control fire with the mind. In reality, this alleged psychic ability has never been proven to exist, but it comes up relatively frequently in fictitious works, such as comics like The Fantastic Four and The X-Men, cartoons like Avatar: The Last Airbender, video games like Street Fighter, and books/movies like Firestarter.
Critically, Spontaneous Combustion mostly went under the radar. What reviews do exist, however, aren’t particularly positive. The film has an IMDb user rating of 4.6/10, and a Rotten Tomatoes audience score of 18%. A Spin magazine review of the movie referred to it as “incoherent,” claimed that it “moves too fast for logic,” pointed out the “too many subplots” and “icky, ridiculous effects,” but nevertheless concluded that the end product is still “a lot of fun” despite the movie’s low quality, likening it to Troma films.
I certainly can’t argue that there aren’t problems with Spontaneous Combustion. However, there are quite a few things I liked about this weird little movie. Chief among these positives is the performance of Brad Dourif – he is a pretty fantastic character actor to start with, but this is just perfect casting. The guy always seems at least low-key pissed off, with a dash of biting wit on top, and that mixture works perfectly for this fiery character. Dourif pretty much carries the movie on his own, and to his credit, he is able to do it.
Another huge positive to this film is its concept – this is just a damn cool idea, and something that doesn’t hit the screen very often. Pyrokinesis is pretty cinematic, and allows for some cool effects work. More importantly, though, the intersection of theme and character here is fascinating. As opposed to scientists who are undone by their own inventions, like a Dr. Jekyll or a Dr. Brundle, Dourif’s character here is a victim of someone else’s madness. He’s not burdened by a karmic system for his misdeeds or hubris – he’s unjustly cursed from birth. While he does give in to a clear anger problem, he is forced into this emotional (and physical) combustion by external sources – like the constant deceit from those around him – which is a lovely irony given the technical definition of SHC.
It may be a minor point, but I also love that the film is effectively book-ended by the song “I Don’t Want to Set the World On Fire” by The Ink Spots. This is a song that has been used quite a bit in movies, television, and video games, but I think it particularly fits well here. It can be interpreted thematically as indicative of the fact that Sam never desired to have his abilities, nor did he desire to go on his eventual fiery rampage – again, these were externally thrust upon him. It is also a neat aesthetic foil for the tone of the film – it is a calm, romantic song, set against a frenetic and furiously violent movie. My only complaint is that I wish it was actually at the end of the film – instead, it comes back just prior to the falling action.
Still, this is far from a great movie. It is founded on some ridiculous fears of nuclear energy and unfounded beliefs in SHC, which put it on pretty shaky footing for me. The writing also doesn’t always logically hold together, and some performers (Dourif) make the dialogue work much better than others. That said, I think this is a totally serviceable deep cut for fans of bizarre science-fiction horror movies. Dourif’s performance and the effects work are worth seeking it out on their own, in my opinion.