This 1990 cheapie was supposed to be the late Tobe Hooper’s “comeback” after his unsuccessful three-picture deal with Cannon Films (which gave us LIFEFORCE, INVADERS FROM MARS and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2). Many Hooper fanatics proclaimed it a great movie, but the best I can say for SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION is that it’s better than subsequent Hooper efforts like THE MANGLER, CROCODILE and THE TOOLBOX MURDERS—which really isn’t saying much at all!
It begins with Brian and his wife Peggy, who are present during the 1945 Trinity, NM atomic tests. Peggy later becomes pregnant, and her son is born on the tenth anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. Among other oddities, the boy has a supernaturally-endowed birthmark on his right hand, with which he makes his parents spontaneously combust.
Thirty years later Sam (Brad Dourif), the now-grown child of the early scenes, is residing in Trinidad Beach, CA. He’s dealing with a pesky ex-wife, and also the opening of a nuclear power plant in his neighborhood that happens to be manned by his ex’s evil grandfather. There’s also the fact that Sam’s permanent body temperature exceeds 100 degrees, and his unfortunate tendency to set things on fire with his birth mark-afflicted hand.
He’s especially freaked out upon learning that two people he knows have spontaneously combusted. A third such death occurs inside a radio station into which Sam telephones, with an obnoxious technician (a cameoing John Landis) feeling Sam’s wrath through the phone, which causes the guy to sprout flames and burn up.
Sam is sent to the eccentric Dr. Marsh (John Cypher), an expert on spontaneous human combustion—and a remorseless killer. Dr. Marsh suspects that Sam’s girlfriend Lisa (Cynthia Bain) possesses a similar “gift.” This leads to another death by spontaneous combustion, and a visit to Nina (Melinda Dillon), a strange old woman with intimate knowledge of Sam’s parentage and the source of his powers…
Hooper appears to have been attempting to explore real-life social issues in a manner similar to the real life frisson he achieved in THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, with hot button topics like atomic testing, abortion, divorce and medical experimentation brought up. Those things, alas, make little impression amid the vastly overcomplicated narrative that piles on too many last minute twists.
Another problem is Brad Dourif, who’s distant and unsympathetic in the lead role (although he has some memorably psychotic moments toward the end). That may have been the fault of Hooper and co-screenwriter Howard Goldberg, who can’t seem to decide whether Sam is supposed to be a good or bad guy.
Like most of Hooper’s post-1990 films, this one has a cheap straight-to-video look, which isn’t helped by the tacky synthesizer heavy score and overuse of CGI—which in 1990 was still in its infancy, something that’s all-too-evident here. The one area in which SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION comes through is in the combustion effects, depicted as gouts of flame bursting, more often than not, out of peoples’ mouths. Unfortunately they’re not enough to make for a successful film!
Black Owl Productions
Director: Tobe Hooper
Producer: Jim Rogers
Screenplay: Tobe Hooper, Howard Goldberg
Cinematography: Levie Isaacks
Editing: David Kern
Cast: Brad Dourif, Cynthia Bain, Jon Cypher, William Prince, Melinda Dillon, Dey Young, Tegan West, Michael Keys Hall, Dale Dye, Dick Butkus, Joe Mays, Stacy Edwards, Brian Bremer, Frank Whiteman, Judy Prescott, Judy Behr, Betsy Thomas, John Landis