Sunday, February 7, 2010

Rare Flix: Spontaneous Combustion

I won't lie- James Rolfe should get some credit for this.  For those of you who don't know, Rolfe is the man behind The Angry Video Game Nerd, besides also being a video maker for Spike TV's website under the title of 'Cinemassacre.'  Every year, he does a month of reviews in October for Halloween.  This year, he tried to cover a gamut of horror films, from the obscure (Universal's The Black Cat) to the more famous (The Abominable Dr. Phibes).  During this, he covered a forgotten Tobe Hooper film called Spontaneous Combustion.  Months later, I busted out the big bucks (read: $1.92) to buy it online in a brand, spanking-new DVD.  What to expect though, you ask?  After all, this man has made ghost films (Poltergeist), backwoods murder films (TCM) and naked, space vampire films (Lifeforce).  Well, I won't lie to you: this movie is freaking weird.  It all has to do with some atomic bomb testing, a crazy adult and a wheelchair-bound man being burned alive.  This is...
Spontaneous Combustion
We begin in the 1950s and we are introduced to our two leads: a nice, young and very short couple.  Seriously, these guys are either 'Prince-sized' or everyone else in the cast plays for the Lakers!  Anyhow they are having some testing done on them by the military.  As it turns out, they were test subjects for a bunker that was supposed to protect you from an atomic bomb.  Don't they have monkeys for this?  They survive the test thanks to some serum and six inches of lead coated walls and become heroes to the military.  Plans are made to show the newsreel about them in 1,500 theaters, or, as they say it, 'the-A-ters.'  A hitch comes in the plan though: the couple is pregnant.  Talk is made about aborting the baby, since it was conceived around the time of the exposure, but that is put away.  Nine months later, a kid is born and has no visible faults from the exposure, save for a birthmark on his hand.  After a routine check-up, the woman is given a thermometer, but accidentally breaks it.  Some of it gets on her, as well as her husband.  This can't lead to anything...they're on fire.  Well, isn't that just great?!?  Afterward, a military man talks about how this is the cleanest kill he's ever seen.  Don't you just love foreshadowing?  One odd bit involves a man who they want to remain mysterious.  To that end, he is in the shadows in every scene, even in mostly-lit rooms.  It's not all that funny- just odd.
We jump ahead to the present...of 21 years ago and find that our little baby is now a weird-looking adult.  He is played by genre actor Brad Dourif, who I only know as the Sheriff from Rob Zombie's latest grime-fests.  Before you comment, I'm sure that he's done more.  He lives under a fake name, but has already had a long, dreary life.  Evidently, he was married and divorced, which is something that makes me feel like I'm watching Spontaneous Combustion: Part 2, although I could just be picky.  He is a teacher at a high school and is- get this- protesting the opening of a nuclear power plant.  Oh Tobe Hooper, you are the master of subtle irony!  Oh and today is his birthday.  His day does not start off great as he is ridiculed for trying to be an actor (more irony?) and he has a headache.  Actually, as he explains, he has a constant fever since he was born and headaches for nearly that long.  Yeah, most doctors would put you in the hospital after a week, but you get by for 34 years!  Throughout his day, he runs into people he does not like (his ex, the school's dumb doctor) and, later on, he hears about their deaths.  All of them, it seems, burned alive.  As one expert on 'spontaneous human combustion' explains, it happens an average of 100 times a year...or six times a day in this case.  I wonder if this has anything to do with the fire starting to suddenly shoot out of our hero...
The fire scenes are definitely the high-points of the movie, even if some of the digital stuff did not age well.  The majority of them still hold up though, due to the shocking and graphic nature of them.  No matter how silly it may look, fire shooting out of the gaping hole in someone's arm still gets your attention.  Fun fact: John Landis has a cameo as a radio tech who meets a fiery death for not allowing our hero to get his call through.  Things only get worse as our hero discovers that his friendly doctor wants him dead, the man's helper wants to inject him with stuff that looks like the Re-Animator formula and his girlfriend was set-up for him.  Geez, can't you take a blind, military set-up date?  In addition, he meets the woman from the flashbacks and learns that the serum was the only thing that was actually supposed to protect his parents from the radiation- nice.  He burns more people alive, including two cops who pull him over for being on fire in a phone booth.  We meet a security guard who apparently knows our hero, but he too is burned alive.  Note to self: don't shoot this guy or face a face full of fire.  He confronts the man who raised him, who turns out to be military brass.  The man gives his big speech about making him a weapon and mating him with the woman, who was exposed to testing in 1964.  Guess what happens to him.  The doctor tries to kill the woman, but she knocks him over a railing- viva la Space Mutiny- and burns him.  The ex-wife shows up, but is killed by the returning Brad, who saves the girlfriend from burning alive by...absorbing her fire and turning into glowing goo.  Okay...The End.
The movie is good, but definitely has some flaws.  For starters, a majority of the characters just come off as evil, even when you're not supposed to know it.  I think some more subtle acting would have fixed this problem.  Dourif, to his credit, is very good, even if most of his role involves yelling and screaming.  He's basically a big, angry baby in the latter half.  The story is unique, especially considering that I initially wrote it off as a Firestarter rip-off.  Some of the stuff in the flashback part could have been cut for time, as the movie takes a while to get going.  I say that, even though the build-up may be intentional, in order to make the first fiery death more dramatic.  Whether or not you agree is obviously up to you.  As I said earlier, a lot of the fire effects hold up due to the drama and gore involved.  Besides, what's not to love about seeing a famous film director burned to death?  To me, it felt like a cheat to not show some of the early deaths and merely imply them.  We're getting into Mitchell territory when you do that.  This falls under the same thing as the bit with the flashbacks, so you may not agree.  Honestly, despite being officially out-of-print, this one is pretty cheap to come by.  It's an Anchor Bay release, but without any extras.  You win some, you lose some.
Up next, an underrated horror series featuring a vastly-underrated genre actor- Julian Sands.  Witches, time-travel and farms- oh my!  Stay tuned...

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