It's something of a cliché to observe that Tobe Hooper's later work never truly lived up to the urgent promise of his original Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), but few films illustrate the point more acutely than this spectacular misfire. Following the ludicrous - but enjoyable - sci-fi excesses of Lifeforce (1985) and Invaders from Mars (1986), as well as the camped-up vandalisation of his own finest work in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1987), this picture signalled a terminal decline in Hooper's talents, and would be one of the last to receive a cinematic release.
Borrowing both the central hook and a good deal of its basic setup from Firestarter (1985), Spontaneous Combustion has all the ingredients necessary for superior genre effort: a shady conspiracy, a secret experiment gone awry, an ordinary man imbued with extraordinary powers, a conspicuously blonde damsel in distress, a seasoned pro in the director's chair and Brad Dourif in the lead. It is, therefore, almost astonishing how badly the picture fails in the execution.
Much like Hooper's career, the film starts off well and then quickly deteriorates; an effective preamble sees a young couple, having taken part in a curious nuclear-radiation exposure experiment (clearly they learned nothing from the experiences of Dr. Banner), being delivered of a baby son before suddenly exploding into flames. Unfortunately, the picture then seems unsure how to proceed, lurching forward in time to follow the now adult son, played with appropriate diffidence by Dourif, and staggering uncertainly through the gradual revelation of his bizarre pyrokinetic abilities, before finally experiencing a total meltdown of narrative logic in an abrupt ending that cuts the story off before the action has really begun.
Although Hooper's visual eye remains keen, his grasp of story structure and continuity appears to desert him, as characters and plot threads wander in an out of focus, scenes begin and end with no discernible impact and the cast look confusedly at each other, presumably wondering how all this will come together in the edit. Much of the time, the film seems to be in a hurry to deliver its (probably expensive) pyrotechnic effects, rushing certain scenes through to the climax instead of allowing for any proper buildup. The main character's powers receive only the haziest of explanations, as though the film were actually disinterested in this delivering this - typically crucial - plot point. At times, it even feels palpably affected by a deep cynicism about its audience's motives, apparently assuming they're only there to watch people be inventively incinerated. In keeping with the film's generally slipshod assembly, the pace is alternately leaden and rushed, with an abiding sense that major scenes have been left out of the final cut. And, whilst he remains a fine actor, Dourif never fully grows into his leading-man role. The thinly drawn supporting cast likewise never has enough to work with, despite the actors bravest efforts, and by the time it's all over some of their motives remain frustratingly unclear.
Handled properly, this subject could well have made for an intelligent thriller; a kind of more horrific, adult take on standard superhero tropes, where the protagonist's new-found abilities are as big a curse as they are a blessing. As it is, it's a dispiriting waste of talent both behind and in front of the camera, and a poor testament to a once-dynamic directorial imagination. Though not the absolute worst of Hooper's late-career output (that dubious honour surely belongs to the atrocious Night Terrors (1993)), this has to be by far the biggest missed opportunity.
Review by owen-47103 from the Internet Movie Database.