Spontaneous Combustion (1990) brief thoughts

Rated: 2.5 / 5

So there was studio meddling with this film. A rough cut exists that’s, well, rough. Unfinished special effects, not all shots are in it that should be (a few of which made it into the theatrical cut), but it is a more cohesive vision. In particular, the film clearly becomes something more focused on the dangers of nuclear energy and power plants. To the point where it comes off as preachy. Considering the film gets a little more over-the-top and ludicrous in the rough cut, at least the preachiness doesn’t seem out of place (though you may still find it annoying).

The original ending had Sam turn into some force of nature (who is also losing his mind) by the end of it who could travel through phone lines, possess people, and mess up power plants (or fix them and make them run efficiently, when he decides to be a good guy). Like I said, ludicrous, but at least it’s consistently nuts.

The theatrical cut pretty much takes that away, makes a couple subplots pointless by the end, and just has Sam’s purpose in life be to melt down into a pile of goo that saves his girlfriend from a fiery fate at the last moment. Because when the film was building up Sam having a “gift” to use to make a big difference in the world, that’s obviously what it was talking about. Not quite as wild as the original intended ending, but it also comes off as underwhelming, and being a film that wasn’t sure how to give a proper ending.

All that aside, the film as-is, the first 10-15 minutes is a nice enough opener, but then the film slows down a bit too much for me until Sam has his first spontaneous combustion moment (it’s handled very well, and is shown very effectively). From there it continues to get interesting, until it finally just goes into loony tunes territory by being a rip-off of Scanners more than something that tackles the spontaneous human combustion (SHC) subject matter (starting with his phone conversation with the psychic; the fact that the film has something like that and takes it seriously astounds me).

I really wish the film kept things simple and more grounded. For something tackling the subject matter of SHC, something that (allegedly) has basis in reality, like some X-Files stuff, it would’ve been more effective if it didn’t go the Scanners route. It would’ve been better if it was more of a tragedy similar to The Fly (the 1980s David Cronenberg version), where the guy’s life starts off normal, but then he starts combusting a bit, and the combustible events become more frequent and bigger, causing more and more damage to him. All the while, he’s looking into his past, and into SHC in general, trying to find out how this is happening to him and why. Could’ve had some theme about how humans don’t fully understand themselves, let alone forces of nature, so how can they hope to conquer it? Or something like that. Or maybe something about the dangers of keeping (or even revealing) secrets that would cause people to panic. Something a little more on the straightforward side. You don’t have to go into batshit insanity territory in order to make a topic like this work in a film. A horror film like this will succeed in terrifying the audience if it makes people paranoid about combusting as much as Jaws made them paranoid about getting eaten whenever they swim in the ocean.

If nothing else, once the action gets going, Brad Dourif shows why he’s a legendary actor. No one can match his intensity in films like these. Without him, this film would be forgettable.

It’s worth a watch just for curiosity’s sake, but be sure to bring the wine for this slice of cheese.

PS: The music isn’t bad either.

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