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 is this bad. Some 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.

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