22
Aug
09

Spontaneous Combustion

“Stop, Drop & Roll”

a review by Jessica Dawn Summers

S. CombustionThere were many movies that Tobe Hooper directed that never received the fame and recognition of his early classics, such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist.  This gem, however, may just deserve some of that acclaim, even if only for the originality of the material. How many movies have you seen in your life about Spontaneous Human Combustion? This is the only one I have ever seen, that’s for sure. That fact completely aside, I genuinely found myself loving this movie.

Starring the amazingly talented Academy Award Nominee Brad Dourif, you might ask yourself, “How is this film Trash Cinema material?” The answer lies within the special effects, prop hands and arms, and bizarre qualities of the pyrotechnics in this movie. I will do my best to describe them, but you must see them to truly appreciate them. Not only will you enjoy the multi-faceted plot, unique storyline, and quality acting, but the icing on the cake is what happens anytime someone starts to burn.

It’s 1950’s America, and fear of the atomic bomb weighs heavy on the hearts of Americans, from scientists to housewives. Young newlyweds Brian and Peggy agree to participate in “Project Samson.” They are to test an experimental vaccine on themselves, in exchange for a fat check to help them as they start their life together.  This vaccine was to make them immune to radiation, and to test such a drug, the two were placed in spitting distance of a nuclear explosion. They survive, and to all tests it appears that the vaccine did in fact protect them! The real treat of this back story is the old fashioned patriotic news reel announcing “America’s First Nuclear Family,” narrated by that rich, masculine voice all the old reels seemed to have.

While in quarantine after the event, Brian and Peggy occupy their time by making a baby. Baby David is a healthy, happy baby boy born on the 10th anniversary of Hiroshima. It appears the couple’s dreams are coming true, until shortly after the delivery, Peggy and Brian burst into flames and die a horrible death; holding each other’s rubbery-looking bodies and screaming until they are nothing but black char.

The couple had been followed closely by a shadowy group of military higher-ups and nuclear research executives who sit at long tables under spotlights and smoke a lot. These guys were originally plotting to abort the baby for fear of what it might become. Now, with the death of the couple, they are left trying to decipher what happened and what might be in store for the baby.

In a bizarre and surreal scene, a creepy guy with an eye patch who apparently works for the shadowy group, rules it “SHC,” or Spontaneous Human Combustion. As if to illustrate his point, he takes a stick, works it into the blackened remains of Brian’s head and pulls out a tiny, shrunken skull. I guess what makes the scene so startling is how absolutely foam-like Brian’s head is. It’s much too light, and eye-patch guy struggles to keep it from falling off whatever it’s propped up on. And does human bone really contain so much moisture that high heat would shrink a skull to the size of a fist? Beats me.

Thirty some years later, David’s new name is Sam and he’s a high school teacher and going through a nasty divorce. On the eve of a new local nuclear power facility coming online, a string of deaths befalls Sam’s associates; each one fire related, after some sort of conflict with Sam.  It’s about this time that Sam’s mysterious fire power reveals itself through burnt fingertips and exploding, flame-spitting holes in limbs which not only resist but are exacerbated by water and fire retardants.

One of my favorite burning scenes is where Sam’s girlfriend Lisa is driving him to the emergency room after a bad “flare-up.” She’s speeding to the hospital in a panic, and Sam starts a terribly timed heart-to-heart speech about his love for her. Lisa then responds in a similarly badly timed fashion to explain how she had been set up all along to watch his progress by the same shadowy group responsible for his pain. He gets emotional, which gets his fire-power going, and his arm explodes into flames again. Lisa screams weakly, keeps her eyes on the road, and only swerves a little – an admirable feat when her passenger is cooking alive and screaming his lungs out. I think that if I were in that situation, I would have at least pulled over, if not flipped the car. I definitely would nominate Lisa for some sort of leadership role should the zombie apocalypse ever happens. This girl can stay focused! Or she’s just a terrible actress. Six one way, half a dozen another.

In the final segment, Dr. Marsh attacks Lisa with a mysterious injection that causes her arm to erupt into flames. Sam’s evil ex-wife shows up and douses Lisa with a fire extinguisher:

Lisa: “Stop! You’re making it worse!”
Ex-wife: “I know.”

In the epic finale, a crispy-looking Sam shows up to fight off the ex-wife and save Lisa. Lisa resists his efforts and flails about, screaming incessantly. Sam sort of melts into a person-puddle, and as Lisa screams, a huge ephemeral hand reaches out of the puddle and pats Lisa’s chest. Lisa’s fire is extinguished, and at this moment, the dubbed screaming continues on for a few seconds, while Lisa’s mouth is closed, then stops abruptly.

This movie really has a lot of things going for it. Brad Dourif sweats buckets throughout this movie, starting at about the 20 minute mark. I suppose it’s appropriate since he’s burning to death. His sweaty, greasy, heavy-breathing, bug-eyed depiction of the character is really, really fun. The burning scenes are absolutely spectacularly bad. Rubbery looking arms are suddenly way too long as they flame up and are held in front of the victim’s face as the person looks down and screams. If I had a poster of this camera angle, I would frame it. The fire strangely does not seem to spread normally, and if you look close, it appears somewhat “on top” of the picture. Clothing somehow doesn’t burn either.

Underlying it all is cautionary tale of the dangers of trying to harness the power of the atom; and the age-old battle of science verses nature. Ultimately, this is a very good story accompanied with terrible effects, but held together tightly by a fantastic performance by Brad Dourif.


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