Spontaneous Combustion (1990)

For a brief, shining moment, Tobe Hooper was seen as one of the upcoming stars of horror, thanks to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist.

But then his big three film contract with Cannon Films turned into a massive disaster, and he ended up spending most of the rest of his career making TV shows.

This one has a feeling of a last gasp about it:  shot three years after The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 tanked, with only a few  TV episodes and a television movie in between, Tobe not only directed but came up with the story and wrote the script.

While it gets off to slow start, with a lot of time spent with a young couple who take part in an experiment involving a nuclear test, things seem to be picking up nicely once we get to Brad Douriff.  He is one of the great treasures of SF and horror cinema (try, for example, to imagine Death Machine without him) and gives a solidly eccentric performance here as Sam, and yet still makes the hero sympathetic.  The story seems to be building nicely, as Sam tries to find out why all these sinister things are happening around him, and to solve the strange mystery of his parents’ deaths.

Now, we can accept the basically silly notion that exposure to radiation, combined with whatever mysterious drug you care to throw into the mix, can cause people to spontaneously combust — or give them the ability to make other people go up in flames.  Hey, we’ve seen radiation do even sillier things in the movies.  With or without the spider bite.

But the real problem here is that the film just seems to come apart at the seams when it heads into its final act.   It’s hard to say exactly what went wrong, but it just sort of…happens in some incoherent way, with the bad guys’ motivations getting all messed up, and some rather sudden changes in Sam’s personality, and enough  loose ends to paper  that mansion in the climax.

There’s just a touch of the supernatural introduced, not enough to really mess with things, but it is one of the few radioactive mutant films to feature an attempted seance (and on-air at that!).  And then there’s that hand reaching out of the mirror.  It’s a dazzling effect, but it does seem out of place.

Gorehounds will enjoy some of the more extreme effects, although a lot of the optically added fire looks like what it is, a special effect.  Still, with John Dykstra lending a hand on the effects, most of them look fairly good.

The one truly aggravating flaw, though, shows up fairly early in the film, when a mysterious young girl gives Sam a package that plays a major part in the plot.  Yet we are never given even the faintest suggestion of a hint as to who she is, where she got the package, or why she gave it to him.

It is nowhere near as bad as some people have suggested, yet it really never lives up to its potential.  Even if it had, I’m not sure it would have been enough to lift Tobe out of his career slump, anyway.

But there are worse midnight movies out there, and if you overlook its flaws there are some pretty good bits stuffed in between them.

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