Back in 1955, the United States military were conducting atomic bomb tests to perfect their weapons, and a young couple were part of those experiments. They were Brian (Brian Bremer) and Peggy (Stacy Edwards) who were invited to contribute as the scientists conducted research on them to see if they could counteract the effects of radiation, and were strapped into a lab near a bomb site as the explosion was going off to get a large dose, but as it turned out they suffered no ill effects and went on to feature in news reports. But then they became an actual nuclear family when Peggy fell pregnant: their bosses were not happy, yet someone in the hierarchy saw an opportunity.
Tobe Hooper had not directed a big screen feature since middle of the previous decade with the sequel to his most influential classic, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, when he made this, though he had been fairly busy in series television in the interim. Somehow, the experience with that trio of mid-eighties Cannon productions had knocked the wind out of his sails cinematically, and you could argue he never really recaptured that talent in the waning years of his career of which Spontaneous Combustion was probably the first to indicate he was no longer a director to be reckoned with. If anything, it looked like a TV movie with stronger violence.
Or maybe a feature length version of an instalment of the Freddy's Nightmares anthology he had experience of, as aside from Brad Dourif going above and beyond the call of duty in a performance more committed than anyone around him, home video was the natural place for this, though it did see the inside of a few theatres. With lowered expectations, you may get a degree of entertainment value out of it, but those expectations would have to be ignoring the fact Hooper directed one of the greatest horror movies of all time, and had spent the rest of his time behind the camera trying to live up to that, so knowing he had penned the script here was no compensation for a shoddy affair.
That introduction before the main plotline began was stretched out to a difficult to accept twenty minutes or so, when what we wanted was to get on with the action, though when that action revealed it was not going to go the Stephen King's Firestarter route and have assorted vehicles exploding in extravagant, oily plumes of flame the anticipated spectacle was thin on the ground. What effects there were turned out to be much like the ones which see off the fifties parents, as no sooner have they named their baby than they have caught fire (superimposed over the actors) and burned to a crisp, hence, spontaneous combustion. We then fast forward to the present, i.e. 1990, and catch up with the child who is Sam (Dourif), about to celebrate his thirty-fifth birthday.
Quite why they had to wait for that advanced age for all this to occur is not explained, but a lot went muddily elucidated upon, what we know is that people around Sam are having the habit of dying in a fire, and he could be responsible since his fingers and a hole in his arm keep lighting up with a jet of flame. He has a girlfriend, Lisa (Cynthia Bain) and she does her best to cope, but she is hiding a secret of her own... well, it's exactly the same secret in a try at milking pathos by introducing a tragic love story. Much as The X-Files on television would, Hooper wove a conspiracy through the narrative as shadowy figures continually hang around with syringes and a doctor from the original tests (Melinda Dillon) has a go at contacting Sam to clear things up, but unlike The X-Files this was unable to sustain its paranoia for a whole movie, never mind a few seasons. With a guest starring John Landis incinerated, the results were all over the place, mostly worth it to see the effects sending the cast into fiery oblivion or maybe the unusual electric accoutrements in Sam's apartment. Music by Graeme Revell (not his finest).