Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Tobe or not Tobe: SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION (1990)

Tobe Hooper’s career is certainly a wild ride. Starting with THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, he carved out a period of distinction (1974-1986) where he made 8 films. Some were excellent, some were very solid, and none of them were bad. Yes, I even dig his INVADERS FROM MARS remake. All of them had an assured sense of style, deft direction and enough wild stuff to make them memorable, which is why his theatrical decline beginning with this film hurts so much. SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION is a great film…a great film if you want your friends angry at you. Just ask my buddy Jon Kitley. He still has friends who hold it against him for dragging them to see this in theaters.

The film opens in 1955 as Brian and Peggy Bell (Brian Bremer and Stacy Edwards) are preparing to be the human experiments in Project Samson. They are going to be inside a fallout shelter to test both its effectiveness and an anti-radiation drug they are injecting. The test goes off without a hitch and they soon discover they will be three as Peggy is pregnant. Nine months later, their son David is born, but the joy doesn’t last long as both parents burst into flames in the maternity ward. They both died from S.H.C. (Spontaneous Human Combustion) says Dr. Vandenmeer (played by HOUSE OF WAX helmer Andre De Toth). But the military brass don’t care as all they want to do is figure our how to replicate what happened.

Cut to present day and David Bell is now Sam (Brad Dourif), a college professor who is always running a fever. Sam has no recollection of his parents, their history or the pyrokinetic powers which lay dormant inside of him. He is about to find out though because today is his birthday and Sam is going to start – as Buster Poindexter said – feeling hot, hot, hot. Everyone seems to be annoying him and people that do tend to burst it to flames. Thankfully he just happens to tune into a radio show discussing the effects of spontaneous combustion and, since everyone else in the city apparently listens to this as well, gets in touch with a woman (Melinda Dillon) who can offer him information about his past. What he doesn’t know is that everyone around him from his ex-wife to his surrogate “father” to his new girlfriend Lisa (Cynthia Bain) is aware of Sam’s history and they’ve been monitoring him for this very moment.

Sounds like a pretty decent premise for a film, right? Well, stop that optimism right there kiddo! In order to achieve any modicum of success with that plot, you need the budget to pull it off and Hooper definitely doesn’t have it here (roughly $5 million). To put it in perspective, Universal’s FIRESTARTER had a budget of $15 million some six years earlier. SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION is one of those flicks where the stills look great. My hopefulness for the film was built on by some killer pics in Fangoria. Hell, look at the fiery frame grabs in this blog. Looks pretty damn cool, right? Well, check them out in motion and you won’t be as impressed. Hooper seems content to do 75% of the fire effects with poorly done composites. Bad move. And it isn’t just the effects that are poorly done. Check out some of the embarrassing sets too. Everything is so cheaply made and, for some odd reason, uncomfortably crammed. Behold the cafĂ© (which boasts of “classical dining”) which is four tables jam-packed into what looks like the landing area of a stairwell. Did the company just stand around in the hotel lobby and say, “That looks like a good place to shoot!”

The film’s other major problem is the screenplay. This is Hooper’s second screenplay credit (he also co-wrote TCM, but I credit the success there more to Kim Henkel) and it shows a disturbing lack of focus. Co-written with Howard Goldberg, the script is a completely muddled mess. First off, they make the criminal sin of having two fire deaths occur off screen. Now these are both important moments that show us Sam has this power. Instead, we hear both of them from characters relaying the information. It is like someone tore the pages out at a budget meeting. Second, there is some really terrible dialog. A perfect example is when Dr. Vandenmeer arrives to examine the burnt bodies of the parents. He walks in and says, “The body burns from the inside with fury and the sound, the sound is like angels screaming” and “fire from heaven is settling here today.” Does this guy have a PhD in Histrionics? And why is he so happy to carve out someone's skull?

Worst of all is Hooper seems completely at a loss at how to stage any of this stuff. I had to laugh when Sam leaves a house and, as he pulls away in his car, the camera lowers down to reveal the bad guy (who Sam already knew) sitting in a car literally 5 feet opposite from where he was parked. Sam didn’t happen to notice the guy who tried to kill him earlier? WTF? Also witness Sam’s emotional transformations. His out-of-nowhere declaration of his love to Lisa as they drive to the hospital as fire erupts from his arm is hilarious. Later, he goes from nice guy to angry guy voicing how he will use his gift to seek revenge in about two seconds after listening to a radio preacher (voiced by George “Buck” Flower). Now Dourif is a pretty good actor, but even he can’t make some of this slop sound good. And who the hell keeps George "Buck" Flower off screen?

And don’t get me started on the film’s ending, which is so poorly staged that it makes absolutely no sense. Hooper spends an inordinate amount of time talking about this nuclear power plant going online at midnight. First off, Hooper seems to have no idea how to subtly play this as the first modern day scene on campus has everyone wearing anti-nuke armbands and posters on every other wall. Second, in the end Sam is confronting the man behind the experiments at midnight and they both burst into flames. Do we just assume he combined with the nuclear plant? I ask because it is never actually shown. We then hear how there was a disturbance in the area (over the radio, naturally) as electrical bolts from the plant stream down the power lines to Lisa’s apartment. She is then attacked by the bad guys before a now burnt Sam literally walks into the scene, kills everyone, and tells Lisa he can take her power (she's a flamer too) before he disappears into a burst of blue light. WTF? The film then cuts quickly to the credits with whispers of “Thank you…goodnight!” and Hooper’s “I’m outta here” in your head.

So, yeah, SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION still sucks. I’m glad I wasted the time 20 years later to find that out. And for a film that marks the beginning of the end of Hooper’s career, it couldn’t be more aptly named. Believe it or not, things actually got worse for Hooper after this, more on that in other blogs. Hooper reached such lows in the ensuing years, in fact, that when he made a semi-decent movie (THE TOOLBOX MURDERS remake), that folks were declaring it a return to his heyday form. No, it wasn’t. It just didn’t stink as bad.

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