Ratings Key

= Excellent. The best the genre has to offer.
1/2 = Very Good. Perhaps not "perfect," but undoubtedly a must-see.
★★★ = Good. Accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.
★★1/2 = Fair. Clearly flawed and nothing spectacular, but competently made. OK entertainment.
★★ = Mediocre. Either highly uneven or by-the-numbers and uninspired.
1/2 = Bad. Very little to recommend.
= Very Bad. An absolute chore to sit through.
NO STARS! = Abysmal. Unwatchable dreck that isn't even bad-movie amusing.
SBIG = So Bad It's Good. Technically awful movies with massive entertainment value.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Spontaneous Combustion (1990)

… aka: Fire Syndrome
… aka: I figli del fuoco (The Fire Children)
… aka: Nevada eksperimentet (Nevada Experiment)
… aka: Polttava kuolema (Burning Death)

Directed by:
Tobe Hooper

I scoured the internet looking for interviews with Hooper where he addresses this particular film and came up empty handed in my search. Seems like nearly everyone just wants to talk in great length about his masterpiece The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). I wonder if he's sick of talking about that movie and answering the same questions over and over again forty years later. Other journalists will touch on some of his other, better-known films. You know, like his Spielberg-produced Hollywood breakthrough Poltergeist (1982), which remains his highest-grossing film to date, and his less successful work with Cannon Picture on the Texas Chainsaw sequel and the big-budget bombs Lifeforce (1985) and Invaders from Mars (1986), but tend to stop around that point in time as if he didn't make anything afterward. If I was ever given a chance to interview him I'd personally be picking his brain about movies like this (which bears the telltale signs of being a very troubled production) and some of the odd ones he made overseas soon after like Night Terrors (1993) and The Mangler (1995). Spontaneous Combustion was his first theatrical feature after his disastrous three-picture stint with Cannon / Golan-Globus four years earlier. Like the Cannon films, this one also had a fairly healthy budget and was a major flop. On a budget of 5.5 million dollars, it grossed just 50 thousand in its limited run. Box Office Mojo lists 226 theatrical releases for 1990 and this one ranks #221 for the year.

Things begin in 1955 at the “Hydrogen Bomb Testing Site” in the Nevada Desert. Brian Bell (Brian Bremer) convinces his wife Peggy (Stacy Edwards) to take part in a military experiment called “Project Samson;” which promises to “take the anxiety out of the Atomic Age!” While hiding down in a bunker 20 feet underground and allowing the military to drop an A-bomb directly on top of them may not sound like a wise choice, it certainly pays well and all they really have to do is strap themselves down to a seat and take an experimental new drug to make them immune from the radioactive fallout. Things seem to go off without a hitch... at least at first. Brian and Peggy pass all of their tests, are labeled “America's First Nuclear Family,” become national heroes for their courage and are given a wad of cash and put up in a nice new home in Phoenix. 

Nine months later, Peggy gives birth to a baby boy they name David. Though he has a slightly above-average body temperature and a strange circular birthmark on his hand, otherwise he gets a clean bill of health from the doctors. Brian and Peggy are elated... that is until both of them suddenly go up in flames. The baby is then handed off to project leader Lew Orlander (William Prince) to raise as his own so he can keep a close eye on him and perhaps cultivate his potential. Lew changes the boy's name to Sam Kramer, tells him his real parents drowned and naturally doesn't tell him anything in regards to his real parents or past.

Thirty-five years later in Trinidad Beach, California we meet the now-grown Sam / David (Brad Dourif), who's a college professor and has managed to ingratiate himself into society with no apparent issues thus far. However, that's all about to change and he'll have worse things to worry about than bombing his audition for the upcoming Shakespeare festival. Sam's recently started suffering from intense migraines to go along with a fever-like body temperature he's had his whole life. The birthmark on his hand keeps growing and he's soon having visions of his dead parents and recollecting things about his past he'd have no way of knowing. Coinciding with all of that, people in the area, namely those who have somehow crossed or angered Sam, have mysteriously burned to death. Though the press have written several of the incidents off as the deceased accidentally catching themselves on fire from smoking in bed, the latest victim somehow managed to catch fire while taking a shower; which forced them to look into the concept of spontaneous combustion.

It's soon made clear to both Sam and his supportive new girlfriend Lisa (Cynthia Bain) that he's the one actually causing the deaths after a woman he gets into a fight with, an inept doctor and a rude, Twinkie-eating radio technician (played by John Landis in a silly cameo) all go up in flames after angering Sam. A hole forms on his arm that starts spewing blood and fire and it can't even be put out with water, which just acts as a fuel of sorts to keep the flames going. And if you think dealing with common everyday assholes may make one angry, just wait until Sam finds out that his adoptive father (who's now the chief adviser to the board of director's at a power plant that's reopening in town), his ex-wife (Dey Young), the woman he now loves, his new doctor (Jon Cypher), who strangely whips out a Geiger Counter during an examination, and others are not only keeping things from him but may also be conspiring against him.

While this starts out fairly well with the 1950s segment, it only gets progressively worse from there. The plot is unfocused and meandering, there's so much stuffed in here that pretty much every plot thread ends up under-baked or just gets tossed to the side altogether, the John Dykstra special effects are highly variable (ranging from excellent to awful) and everything leads up to a truly terrible finale that's unsatisfying, anticlimactic and utterly senseless. What gives with the birthmark? What gives with Sam briefly acquiring clairvoyant abilities and being able to see into not only his past but other (dead!) people's lives? What gives with the syringe of glowing green goop a mad doctor / assassin wants to inject Sam and Lisa with? What gives with Sam being able to cause people to spontaneously burst into flames at will and from afar yet not using these powers on the people he knows mean to do him harm? The piss poor writing / plot development does provide the occasional unintended laugh and "WTF just happened?!" moment, so this has that much going for it.

I've always loved Dourif. He's a great actor who usually gives it his all, as he does in this film, but even he can't do much when the dialogue (“Listen you IDIOT! I don't think this is as important as your LOUSY SNOT!”) is this bad. Some other clunkers include Lisa reassuring Sam not to worry because spontaneous human combustion “...happens all the time!” and one of the military men noting the irony of the atomic baby's birthday: “Well it's August 6th... Today's the 10th anniversary of the day we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. That's pretty funny, isn't it?” The supporting cast also includes Melinda Dillon, Dale Dye and former Chicago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus as members of the 1950s military / science team, Michael Keys Hall, Dick Warlock and one-eyed House of Wax director André De Toth in an uncredited cameo. George “Buck” Flower provides the voice of a radio preacher and Hooper himself can be seen smoking in the boy's room.



spookyx3 said...

"'you see me playing my heart out in scenes that are not working, and the reason they're not working is that the movie doesn't make any sense... it's almost funny. as a matter of fact, the better my acting was in some of the later scenes, the funnier the film was... [i was] at the mercy of people who didn't know what they were doing... i probably shouldn't be saying this, but my feeling is, the producers destroyed it. tobe could have made three different movies with the material he had, and each one would have worked. but by the time he got it, it had changed from a love story to a suspense thriller about my character's paranoid fantasy, to a guy-goes-crazy film about this insane killer who becomes a destructive force that's going to wipe out mankind. we went back and kind of restructured it as a love story, but it didn't really help. the beginning of the film was great, and a certain portion of my stuff was fine, but then it became stupid when all the flame stuff started happening.'" -- brad dourif, FANGO #95, aug '90.

The Bloody Pit of Horror said...

Thanks! I figured something screwy must have happened behind the scenes. The fact there was a lot of interference and no one could make up their minds what kind of movie they were making is VERY evident on screen. Shame because it starts out promisingly.

spookyx3 said...

from three issues before, when hooper's trying to sell it:

"'i never really saw this movie as being an out-and-out horror film, but rather as a mystery-thriller ... this film shows that science willingly steps over the line of human decency and respect in the name of progress. in a way it can be justified, and [the movie] goes just as much into that justification as it does the old mad-scientist scenario ... this is the first time i've done a great deal of the writing myself, and i found it much easier to just sit down and write this thing rather than try to communicate ideas to another writer. and it showed in how fast it came together. we had a first draft script in three weeks and a final shooting script in six weeks ... i didn't have as many people to deal with [helming an independent] ... i had just as much freedom as made sense, under the circumstances. nobody had a heart attack when i decided to change something.'
which is just as well, because SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION was marked by changes with a capital c. hooper laughingly describes his 'cut and paste' approach to filmmaking. 'i've gotten to the point where i really don't shoot that much ... what i did a lot of on this film was shoot until i got the pieces i needed. i did not need perfect takes; if takes three and four were prints but weren't perfect i was able to cut and paste to get what i needed. i wasn't as concerned with making good dailies as i was making a good movie.
'there was also a lot of day-to-day re-writing and restructuring on the film ... i would see something in the dailies and adapt the characters to the reality of the situation. i also rewrote the film's ending a couple of times. initially the ending was more surreal. i changed it to something a little more realistic. well, realistic if you consider a man going through a nuclear meltdown something that happens every day ...
'i feel good about this film's box-offices chances, and people will definitely be entertained ... what really makes me happy is that [it] feels good on an aesthetic level. this film works for me as a piece of cinema. ... i did feel in my own head that maybe [after three films with cannon] the next picture i did should be a big moneymaker, and i feel that [it] has a shot. i don't really know if, career-wise, i'm off the track. if i am, i hope this film puts me back on. if it doesn't, then something else will.'"

hooper also talks about the failure of LIFE FORCE & INVADERS. nobody brings _this_ film up during the interview piece for BODY BAGS in '93. not sure if they ever covered I'M DANGEROUS TONIGHT.

The Bloody Pit of Horror said...

Wow, seems like Hooper was in damage control mode (or denial) when giving that interview. The ending was absolutely terrible and his "realistic" comment gave me a good chuckle. Guess one can't blame him since his big screen career was dangling by a thin thread at that point. Not interested in good dailies? Whaaaat?!? He pretty much put the final nail in the coffin with The Mangler a few years down the road, which also didn't do that well especially considering the fact they had Stephen King's name to fall back on. Apparently he was fired before that was completed and it was finished by someone else. Same exact thing happened with The Dark (1979) and Venom (1981).

spookyx3 said...

never saw MANGLER (a couple of years too late... it's pathological). NIGHT TERRORS, even with its exotic locations, totally bored me. i tried unsuccessfully to get through LIFEFORCE, once on tape (full-screen) then later on DVD. didn't mind DANGEROUS TONIGHT, even though it has absolutely nothing up its sleeve. i wouldn't have kept giving hooper chances, but TCM 2, a damn good movie (or so i thought 20 years ago when i last saw it), was still current in 1990. wasn't as if he hadn't made anything worth a damn since 1974 or something.

The Bloody Pit of Horror said...

Agree about Night Terrors for the most part. It was odd yet dull. Mangler was even worse I thought. Been ages since I've seen I'm Dangerous Tonight and I wouldn't mind re-watching that one. Lifeforce is another I need to have another look at since it's been a LONG time since I watched it. I remember not liking it much but it seems to have become more popular over the years. Embarrassingly, I actually have not yet seen Salem's Lot or The Funhouse. I have both of them; just haven't gotten around to watching them yet.

spookyx3 said...

SALEM'S LOT? me either. i did read the book. EATEN ALIVE's the only other one i haven't seen yet for these years.

oh, and FUNHOUSE is a good time:

"went everywhere i expected. doesn't mean it wasn't frightening. until it switches to high gear, a sense of unease is maintained simply by watching the place in operation, with its dissonant music, leering carnies, raucous mechanical puppets etc. the film isn't much to look at, but it works."

The Bloody Pit of Horror said...

Eaten Alive is OK-ish. Definitely not up to TCM's standards but has its moments. I tend to like films set at carnivals / circuses so I'm sure I'll at least be entertained by Funhouse.

spookyx3 said...

my expectations were very low for FUNHOUSE. it drew me in quick.

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