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Directed by: Tobe Hooper
Austin, TX bred director Tobe Hooper has had a long and interesting career directing films and television shows in the horror genre. Of course we all know he's the man responsible for creating/co-writing/directing the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre waaaaay back in 1974, but the guy's been working regularly in the business ever since then. As with most directors, he's had varying degrees of success. After Chainsaw he gave us a couple of cult classics like Eaten Alive, the Stephen King made-for-TV movie Salem's Lot and The Funhouse. But his most prolific and most popular output is most definitely the 80's, where after directing the blockbuster Poltergeist he was given a 3 Picture Deal with Cannon films, which resulted in Lifeforce, Invaders from Mars and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2. Sadly, none of these were hits, thus ending his streak of having films released theatrically. In the following years he did nothing but television work, with 1990's Spontaneous Combustion being his only feature film until 1993's Night Terrors, both of which went straight to home video.
I have to say, I quite liked Spontaneous Combustion. It's more of a thriller than anything, and while it tends to be on the slow side a little too often, it has a lot to admire for many reasons. If anything, it proves that Hooper indeed has a knack for visuals and practical effects work, and the fact that it was made in the late 80's going into the 90's is a plus. There's just something about movies having a specific look when they were made around this time. 1990 has and always will be my favorite year of cinema, and to learn that this came out that same year only drives that point further.
Sam is a product of the atomic age. When his parents volunteer for an experiment that would test the effects of radiation, their experiment results in an unplanned pregnancy. Both of the parents die during childbirth in a horrific fire, but Sam (Brad Dourif), grows up to be a well adjusted teacher. When the usually meek Sam begins to experience some unexplained phenomena, other things begin to take on a whole new meaning, and Sam soon learns that his entire life is not what it seemed, resulting in a climax that has been building up his entire life.
When people discuss Tobe Hooper's filmography, Spontaneous Combustion is never mentioned, and I'm actually quite surprised. It's by no means a perfect film, but considering most of his output since the 80's has been rubbish, I consider SC to be a solid film that fares far better thematically than pretty much anything he's done since 1986. On a visual level, SC is pure Tobe Hooper at the top of his game. Even with the dated practical effects work, considering it was all in-camera and practical effects, it's impressive to think of how much work went into creating them. By 2014 standards, the fire effects are generally sub-par to the average moviegoer, but when you consider that this was 1989 when it was made, I find it all rather impressive. Sure, it's mostly composite shots, but at least it's not bad CGI in it's infancy, which was just around this time. So for that, I commend them for not going the easy route, and let's be honest, there's a lot to say about practical effects work, even if it is dated.
From what I've read, most people seem to have a problem with it never reaching it's full potential. I disagree, but only partly. While it is somewhat of a slow-burn kind of experience, the payoff is exactly what I was expecting and it's slow buildup to it's intense conclusion left me satisfied. Right from the beginning you get the sense that this is not going to be a horror film, and it's not. But for what it is, it exudes a certain charm that makes it hard for me to hate on its shortcomings. With that being said, it's slow approach culminates in a series of events that lead Sam (Brad Dourif) to slowly begin to unhinge, resulting in arguably one of Brad Dourif's most intense performances. If you've always loved to hear him scream like I do, then you'll be happy to know that he does plenty of that in the final act.
This may not be everyone's cup of tea, but for fans of Tobe Hooper, Brad Dourif, daring practical effects work and just of 90's horror/thriller's in general, there's a lot to like about Spontaneous Combustion. I don't remember anything of his Toolbox Murders remake, so I'll have to revisit that soon to refresh my memory. But as it stands now, I'd consider this to be the last good Tobe Hooper film.