Spontaneous Combustion (1990)
By: Julian on August 24, 2011  | 
DVD
Umbrella | All Regions, PAL | 1.85:1 (16:9 enhanced) | English DD 2.0 | 97 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Credits
Director: Tobe Hooper
Starring: Brad Dourif, Cynthia Bain, Jon Cypher, William Prince
Screenplay: Tobe Hooper, Howard Goldberg
Country: USA
External Links
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Tobe Hooper's career as a film director has been, and forever will be, overshadowed by his debut horror picture, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. At no point in his career – not with his second-best film, Eaten Alive, or the film that most people say is his second-best film, Poltergeist – did Hooper even come close to Chainsaw. But even if Hooper is the victim of his own success, he remains an enigma, simply because there is little consistency in the quality of his films: it's impossible to comprehend the same man who directedThe Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Eaten Alive also directed The Mangler and Mortuary.

Spontaneous Combustion is very pedestrian, but it isn't as poor as some of Hooper's contemporary work (two excellent Masters of Horror episodes notwithstanding), nor does it come close to the high quality of his seventies efforts. Its worst fault is a pretty blatant resemblance to Stephen King's 1980 novel (and that book's 1984 film adaptation) Firestarter, a resemblance that those familiar with the King novel will notice immediately and it evidences, at best, a creative laziness on Hooper's part. Spontaneous Combustion can be a fun little conspiracy thriller, but it is mostly tedious, inept, derivative and poorly acted.

A protracted prologue introduces 'America's first nuclear family', a man and his pregnant wife who work and live in a Nevada nuclear testing facility. During the course of their involvement in a top-secret operation known as Project: Samson, the pair is exposed to large quantities of radiation. Their child, Sam, is born seemingly normal, and he grows into a healthy man (Brad Dourif).

As an adult, Sam detects that he has abilities: he is able to generate static electricity to run between him and others, and he is able to make others spontaneously combust, all of this when he is angry at the person who soon meets their unfortunate, fiery fate. Sam panics, spooks begin to follow him and the whole show unravels.

Spontaneous Combustion is a midday television movie. Perhaps as rough-and-tumble as midday television movies get, but it nevertheless remains a midday television movie. The performers, with the exception of Dourif, are woeful, and Dourif is just run-of-the-mill (I certainly prefer him when he is voicing evil dolls). Technically, the film isn't much better. To say the effects are lacking would be a rather nice way of putting it; fluorescent blue lightning bolts, balls of orange flame and bodies spewing blue smoke aren't particularly convincing, but I'm willing to acknowledge the fact that Hooper was not working with too many zeroes. I have my doubts that a corpse that spontaneously combusts emits electrical buzzing, but I'll leave that alone.

Spontaneous Combustion ends abruptly, but that's not to say it should have been longer: the prologue is unnecessarily drawn out, and the sense of intrigue that is one of the movie's only drawcards should have been maximised at the expense of some tiresome exposition that added little to it. Hooper's repetition of the one-note gimmick of having Sam telepathically set people alight did not live up to the promise offered by the title – something original could have been done with the idea of spontaneous human combustion, instead of merely re-hashing Firestarter.

I'm reluctant to call Spontaneous Combustion a turkey, but maybe that's because I really wanted to like it, and I really wanted to be able to repudiate all of those mean and nasty things I've said about Hooper in the past. At the very least, Spontaneous Combustion has its moments – mainly when Sam is becoming increasingly paranoid about the government on his tail, and when his undoing finally comes at the end of the film. But these moments are too few to save the movie.
Video
Looking like a sloppy NTSC>PAL conversion, the 16:9 image is of a fairly sub-standard quality.
Audio
The English Dolby 2.0 audio track is well-balanced and clear. No subtitles are provided.
Extra Features
A theatrical trailer and trailers for other Umbrella releases (Society, The Stepfather, Candyman and Bride of Re-Animator).
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Hooper has directed a handful of good movies, a barrelful of awful ones, and a couple that are worth watching once in a lifetime. Spontaneous Combustion falls into the latter category, but only just. There's enough intrigue to keep the viewer vaguely interested, but the kindness I'm showing it might just be a slavish horror fan's nod of respect to the man who brought us The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Perhaps if Alan Smithee had directed this, it might have found its way out of my DVD player before the end credits rolled.

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