Prime in the Dustbin: ‘Spontaneous Combustion’ (1990)

It is nigh on impossible to discuss the glorious lunacy of the 1990 Cannon Films release, Spontaneous Combustion, without talking about its director, Tobe Hooper.

The oeuvre of Tobe Hooper is difficult to defend. A full retrospective of his work shows an almost barometric series of ups and downs. His high points are stratospheric. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre became a genre classic from the moment film critic Rex Reed declared it the most horrifying movie he had ever seen, no small claim from the man who starred in the glamorously terrible Myra Breckinridge. Lovers of animated blue lightning and full frontal nudity proclaim the sci-fi/horror hybrid Lifeforce to be one of his most entertaining movies.

But his low points were practically subterranean. For example, Eaten Alive is a movie that manages to make Robert Englund, whorehouses, and a carnivorous Cajun crocodile boring. The Mangler, an adaptation of a Stephen King short story, turns its frightening source material into a flat comic misadventure.

Then there is the Poltergeist mystery. Did he really direct that film, or was it Steven Spielberg all along? Evidence for both sides exists, and fan theories are still running wild about the truth of that matter.

One of the strange things about Hooper’s work is his lack of a discernible recognizable style. A fan can watch a snippet of John Carpenter’s work, see the deep focus and love of lens flares, and know immediately who directed that piece of film. While Hooper had elements he enjoyed using, there were few that he returned to on a constant basis. Each of his films is a separate, unique piece. Mortuary is different from The Toolbox Murders is different from well, you get it. Even his worst work has high spots, but one might be had pressed to figure out, simply by watching, who created it. Every single one of his movies just feels different.

Well, almost.

The largely forgotten Spontaneous Combustion is where all those motifs and indulgences finally come together.

The premise of Spontaneous Combustion is as wobbly as a newborn zebra. At the beginning of the atomic age, under the sand of a Nevada nuclear testing range, an adorable young married couple sat in an experimental bomb shelter while a hydrogen bomb exploded over their heads. Even with some minor structural damage to their safe haven, they survive the blast with no radiation poisoning. They are hailed as heroes, “America’s First Nuclear Family.” Suck on that, Russkies!

It isn’t long until the woman gets pregnant and soon, they are welcoming their baby boy into the world. The baby seems fine, except for a birthmark on his hand that looks like someone attacked him with an automobile cigarette lighter. It’s unsightly, but not nearly as bad as the fact that he can produce fire, which he promptly uses to torch his parents. He’s a baby; it’s not like he can control his pyrotechnical prowess.

Flash forward to the present. That flame-hurling baby has grown up to be Brad Dourif, a nice dude with a nice girlfriend, who doesn’t know anything about his flammable past. That changes on the morning of his birthday, a date that coincides with not only the bombing of Hiroshima, but the cranking up of a new nuclear power plant in town. Dourif starts shooting flames out of his fingertip, which is odd behavior for anyone’s fingertips. Within hours, he finds himself in the sticky middle of a web of espionage, false friends, and conflagration.

The tendrils of the plot don’t always come together, and some of the performances are not up to par. You’re dealing with a movie that has Dick Butkus in a small supporting role and Melinda Dillon affecting the worst Russian accent since the days of Moose and Squirrel. Genre fans, however, will be interested to see John Landis in a cameo as a radio engineer who learns an important lesson about not being rude to people on the telephone.

The special effects in this low-budget film are surprisingly good, utilizing a deft mix between practical pyro and animation. The fire injures Dourif’s character every time he uses it, which is a nice touch. He’s not a superhero. He’s a regular guy who has a fire in his belly. And his arms. And his eyes. And probably other places. Known for playing roles in which he is slightly unhinged, Dourif turns in a restrained performance here. He doesn’t go over the top until the middle of the third act when he’s gone through so much sheer weirdness, you need him to go nuts. Any other behavioral option would ring false. It’s a believable character in a ludicrous situation, and Dourif’s slow burn (literally) technique is perfect.

Spontaneous Combustion may not be the best Tobe Hooper film, but it feels like the one that most accurately bears his thumbprint. The long loving tracking shots are here, as are the bold lighting effects. It’s impressive, visually, from the great balls of fire streaking across the screen to the small touches like Brad Dourif’s singed eyelids.

All those disparate elements of Hooper’s style mesh together in Spontaneous Combustion. It’s solid, entertaining, and lots of things (and people) catch on fire. I don’t have a problem with that. Since it only received a limited theatrical release and was mostly overlooked during its home video release, Spontaneous Combustion sure didn’t set the world on fire. But it still smolders in the greyed-over ashpit of Amazon Prime Video, waiting to be rekindled.

Is that enough fire puns? Should I stop now?

Yeah. Let’s stop.

Hey, check out Spontaneous Combustion on Prime Video US.

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