Spontaneous Combustion

(1991, 1:85, Tobe Hooper)
** – Worth Seeing

After dealing with The Cannon Group wreaking havoc on Lifeforce, Invaders from Mars and Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, director Tobe Hooper was reported to have said that his next film would be his own production. That way, Hooper reasoned, no one else but he could be blamed if the film was bad. If Hooper had known that the film that would follow this statement, Spontaneous Combustion, would be subject to a post-production re-haul and a straight-to-video release, he might have thought twice before speaking. The post-production history of Spontaneous Combustion is unclear, but it is known that the film was released in a version that Hooper said was far from his own vision. Many in the press and the horror fan-base said that this was to cover up for what they saw as Hooper’s long suspected filmmaking inadequacies, questioning the degree to which he had a true directorial hand in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist. Since Hooper also credited himself as the producer and screenwriter, critics reasoned that all of the film’s deficiencies unquestionably pointed to him.

Most of the criticism focuses on the narrative of Hooper’s film, calling it a rip-off of Stephen King’s Firestarter, and, I grant, there are some similarities. In the 1950s, a young couple agrees to become subjects in nuclear tests for the US military and for a corporation, in exchange for a house, car and all the other accoutrements of postwar prosperity. Soon after the test, the seemingly unscathed newlyweds produce a boy, yet the promised suburban bliss goes up in smoke when the parents spontaneously combust just hours after the child’s birth. The sponsors of the test convene and decide to keep the whole affair secret, leaving the child, Sam, to be closely monitored through adulthood by the head of the corporation, who covertly nurtures Sam’s inherited powers. The narrative jumps twenty some-odd years, during which Sam, played as an adult by Brad Dourif, has grown up in a small town unaware that it is a hive of secrets and hidden agendas. Everyone — from his girlfriend to his ex-wife to the family doctor — is playing some secret role in grooming Sam to be a new weapon for the military. All goes awry when Sam hears a witness to the nuclear experiment call into a talk show that Sam is listening to, and the threads of his life begin to untangle. Sam’s girlfriend, Lisa, confesses that she herself is the birth child of the same nuclear tests and that she has been placed in Sam’s life by his uncle. Sam confronts his uncle at his mansion, who reveals that he is not only the head of the corporation which sponsored the tests, but also Sam’s real father, impregnating Sam’s mother before her willing exposure to a nuclear blast. Enraged by the web of deceit that his life has been enmeshed in, Sam draws upon his destructive power to literally burn the house down, taking most of the conspirators with it.

While the plot of Spontaneous Combustion is similar to King’s story, Hooper’s own preoccupations override any surface resemblance. Foremost is the emphasis on the bloodline and history of families that spawn abnormal and dysfunctional individuals, the vicious mechanisms of American industry and capitalism that create these families, and the facade of suburban normalcy that is an attempt to hide these deficiencies. Also present are the themes of destructive forces of nature that exist inside and outside the body that manifest themselves in relation to sex and rage, along with supernatural and psychic powers such as ESP and telepathy. Hooper, as usual, strikingly works these concerns into the set design and look of the film. Reflecting the theme of fire and heat, the art direction is constructed of hot colors and glowing neon, and the lighting design radiates a bright sheen, represented visually in all the lighting fixtures that decorate the sets.

To find an article or interview where Hooper spoke at length of the changes made to Spontaneous Combustion would be of great service, because what remains of the film hints at a well thought-out and designed horror film. The sequences that take place in the Fifties seem to be the most intact and therefore fully realized, but when the film shifts to the Seventies to focus on Sam, the narrative becomes wobbly, and at times, incoherent. Character’s relations to each other become ill-defined, as do their motivations, and the subplot that links Sam’s realization of his powers with the start date of the town’s new nuclear power plant is totally underdeveloped. A further understanding of Hooper’s intentions may also clarify Brad Dourif’s performance, which shifts from exaggerated naivet√© to drooling, over-the-top rage and thus almost renders itself a parody. Hooper’s films always have elements of black humor and parody, but so much is missing between and within the scenes here that it is impossible to discern the proper tone or intentions of the film. (A perfect example is the exclusion of any scene establishing Sam and Lisa as high-school teachers, thus making them look like the oldest students in history to be wandering the halls.)

All that remains, however, is what either the other producers or the distributor found dynamic or fit to remain. Hooper said that Lifeforce was cut by 22 minutes because the producers wanted to get to the effect scenes as quickly as possible; gutting story, atmosphere and suspense in the meantime. Spontaneous Combustion seems to have met a similar fate, but with even more destructive results. Some sequences appear to have been edited out of order; shots that were to be intercut now remain separate actions resulting in moments when absolutely nothing is happening on screen. While slow pacing may be a problem in a lot of Hooper’s films, anyone familiar with his work knows he has far surpassed the rudiments of film editing. Then there is the matter of the ending: after Sam has destroyed his birth father, ex-wife and doctor, the film abruptly ends as Lisa helplessly watches as Sam dissolves into a swirling pool of fire or something like that. There is no resolution as to what will happen with Lisa, or, for that matter, what happened to Sam; once the nemeses of Sam’s life are extinguished, the film cuts to the end credits, the theme music pounding out — giving the sense that something exciting has happened, but if it has, its been left on the editing room floor.

Those who have been eager to dismiss Hooper fail to realize that with Spontaneous Combustion, and some of his other work, a comprehensive evaluation is difficult, for one is dealing with incomplete texts: texts that have been disassembled and reconstructed apart from the author’s intentions. In considering an auteur’s work- or perhaps any filmmaker- one needs to keep in mind the mode and conditions of production under which a particular film was made, especially in America for the past 23 years. Hooper’s career is a case in point in this respect: having started working independently in the 70s, absorbed by the studio system in the 80s, and then cast back out into the realm of independent film production, which had changed greatly from the 70s due to the advent and marketing of video. If this seems like special pleading for a director with an uneven filmography, I would insist that the case needs to be made in defense of Hooper, whose work demonstrates a high level of visual sophistication and thematic continuity. Therefore, no matter what the problems with Spontaneous Combustion, the film can still be seen as a worthwhile contribution to Hooper’s body of work and can be recommended.

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2 Responses to “Spontaneous Combustion”

  1. Holy Cow! Spot-on write-up. The film is spotty as hell, definitely, but it’s got merit. “Visual sophistication” for sure, and great points on the art direction, the confusing high school-set scenes, and a very persuasive 2nd sentence, 3rd paragraph.

    If I may ask, as an amateur pro-Hooper spokesman, what are your sources for the alleged post-production disputes over this film and Hooper’s claims in the first paragraph?

    • michaelaworrall Says:

      Thank you for the compliments and for submitting a comment. Wonderful to know that people are reading my posts.

      In regards to the post-production disputes, I do remember that the film was slated for a theatrical release and then showed up on video after a long wait. I remember Hooper saying that his film was, once again, taken out of his hands. I know I read it in a horror film magazine at the time. (I wish I could recall the exact one for you.)

      Apparently, Hooper lost his temper at a press screening of LIFEFORCE when someone commented that the film made no sense. A lot of these stories are related in a book by John Russo on making movies where Hooper speaks about his days at Cannon. I also read an interview with Caroline Williams from Texas Chainsaw Massacre II in which she speaks of the havoc Cannon played with Hooper while he was making the film. (I believe this is online.)

      Hope this has been a little helpful

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