Spontaneous Combustion

08/12/2021 06:39

Film: Spontaneous Combustion

Year: 1990

Director: Tobe Hooper

Writer: Tobe Hooper and Howard Goldberg

Starring: Brad Dourif, Cynthia Bain and Jon Cypher



This was a movie that I don’t believe I heard about until getting into horror movie podcasts. From what I gathered, it was made by Tobe Hooper and that it was one of his not-so-great efforts. I threw this on a list of films to check at some point. Thanks to Duncan from over on the Podcast Under the Stairs, I’m watching this as part of Movie Club Challenge. The synopsis is a young man finds out that his parents had been used in atomic weapons experiment shortly before he was born and that the results have had some unexpected effects on him.

For this movie we are starting back in 1955. We are in the Nevada desert. A young couple of Peggy (Stacey Edwards) and Brian Bell (Brian Bremer) are in a bunker. The experiment is to set off a nuclear explosion to see if they can survive in this bunker without negative effects. The experiment is going by the name of Sampson. They do survive and it looks to be a success. In charge of this is Lew Orlander (William Prince). There are a couple of generals that include Dale Dye and Dick Butkus as well as some doctors. There’s a bit of a hiccup. While down there, Peggy and Brian conceived a child. Those in charge must decide what to do about this pregnancy and they allow it to happen.

Everything seems to be normal after the birth. That is until both parents spontaneous combust. The bodies are taken to a bunker and everyone tries to get to the bottom of what happened. Another doctor is brought in to explain this phenomenon and that it is naturally occurring.

We then shift to the present. Our main character is Sam (Brad Dourif) and he is the baby from the beginning. This is indicated from a birthmark on his hand. Sam is a teacher and he is seeing Lisa Wilcox (Cynthia Bain). His birthday is coming up and he is wondering what Lisa is going to do for him. He does have to go see his ex-wife for lunch which he doesn’t seem to be thrilled about. As he goes to leave school, he finds a young woman in his car and she leaves him a present. Inside is a birthday card from his biological father along with his pocket watch. With everything that happened, he was raised in foster care and has no knowledge of his real parents.

The lunch with is ex doesn’t go as planned. She already ate with a Dr. Marsh (Jon Cypher) who Sam isn’t too fond of. It appears he used to be his doctor and this man spent a lot of time with his wife while they were together. Sam does still like her father who is Lew.

Sam deals with migraines and Lisa gives him homeopathic pills to help alleviate them. The strange day isn’t helping his headache. It gets even weirder when on the radio he hears information that pertains to him. When he calls in, the radio host states things about his past. The show ends and this upsets Sam. He tries calling back to get the phone number of this person that was a guest, the technician is a bit rude. I did like this was played by John Landis. In his anger, Sam somehow causes him to burst into flames. This isn’t the first death we heard like this and it isn’t the last. Sam goes on a rampage to find out what is wrong with him and it involves the past. He also learns things that aren’t as they seem. It should also be noted that, a nuclear power plant in the area is going online that night at midnight as well.

Alright, that is where I’m leaving my recap of this movie. Where I want to start is that I’m glad I knew a good bit about Hooper before seeing this movie. It helps to make a bit more sense of what we’re getting here. The concept of this movie isn’t all that bad and I actually found it interesting. This coming out in the 90’s is intriguing, because it is bringing up a concept that was popular from 1950’s which is when this movie begins. The dropping of the nuclear bombs in Nagasaki and Hiroshima along with just the fear of that comes with having weapons like this and nuclear war influenced a lot of horror in that era. This movie even has Sam’s birthday as the anniversary of Hiroshima. It feels like Hooper when he came up with this story as pulling from fears of the past.

Delving a bit more into this, there is more to this experiment than what we know. I’m not going to spoil it, but what is relayed to us through a montage video that was shown in theaters isn’t what Lew relays at the reveal. I got heavy vibes of Stephen King’s Firestarter and the LSD experiments that were done without the subjects knowing. There is that fear of the government which is a solid concept. Hooper along with Howard Goldberg borrowed quite a bit in my opinion from the King novel with where things end up as well.

I want to shift this over to this idea of spontaneous human combustion. I’ll be honest; it fascinated and terrified me when I learned about it on Unsolved Mysteries. It is one of my irrational fears growing up to be honest. When the first death in the present of this movie happens, it makes Sam uneasy. It is more that he knew the victim and talked to them the night before it happened. When it happens again, Sam’s fear goes up and the suspicion from authorities does as well. I do think they had an interesting idea here to use for sure.

My problem here though, this story is hard to follow and disjointed. This is what I was meaning with Hooper and his use of drugs. There is a solid premise here, I just don’t think it came together as well as they would have liked. It pulled me with the ideas that were used which is just a shame that it couldn’t be fleshed out like wanted. There are things like Sam learning of what happened to his parents while looking in a fireplace or how strong his powers actually are. I understand this is something that we don’t know the science of, but I think as filmmakers, they should know the limits. It doesn’t feel like they do and just rolled with things, because they could do an effect or it sounded good at the time of filming. If this could be tightened up, I think the overall product would be better.

To move away from the story, I’ll go to the acting. I hate to say this, but really the only performance that I thought was good was Dourif. I could be bias as I’m a fan of him. Dourif just feels like he’s enjoying himself and was able to just go wild as things fall apart around him. I like his descent into madness as he tries to get to the bottom of everything. Bain isn’t all that bad though either. She disappears for a stretch and I don’t feel they fleshed her out for how important she ends up. Cypher is a bit of a jerk that we don’t trust. I would say the rest of the cast wasn’t fleshed out as well as they could be the performances lack a bit for me.

Something I will give credit to would be the effects. They went ambitious here and it even though it doesn’t always work, I can appreciate this. I think that the fire effects are hit or miss. There were times I could tell that they’re using tricks with the camera and I could tell what they were showing us has fire superimposed. Going back to the power of this isn’t as defined, they have some things happening that don’t make a lot of sense. I would say that I could in middle here where some work and some do not. The cinematography was fine aside from that.

So then in conclusion here, this movie is a bit of a mess. I don’t want you to think that I outright hated it though as there is some good things here. The use of a concept that our government has done some nefarious experiments is good. I cannot give complete credit here to the story as there are a lot of things borrowed from other sources. The acting isn’t helped by the screenplay, so it is really Dourif who was good with Bain being probably the next best performance. The effects were hit or miss and the soundtrack was fine, but it didn’t stand out to me. For me, this is a below average film. I think tightening up some things could have helped, because there is good stuff here.


My Rating: 4.5 out of 10