If any two films could stand in for the scabrous and undervalued genre work that made up the bulk of the late Tobe Hooper’s career, it would Eaten Alive, a tawdry and deranged Tennessee Williams grindhouse item that appears to have been filmed inside a lava lamp, and Spontaneous Combustion, his baby boomer nuclear-pyrokinesis movie. Both imperfect and implosive, both in the Hooper-ian vein of horror as twisted parody. The inexhaustible Texas Chainsaw Massacre has long been imprinted into the pop culture consciousness, Poltergeist is too blatantly Spielbergian, and the bizarre and costly alien-sex-vampire phantasmagoria Lifeforce, which represents Hooper at the height of claustrophobic excess, has seen its reputation turn around since the 1980s. No, appreciating Hooper as an auteur involves movies like these—especially Spontaneous Combustion, because it lacks Eaten Alive’s perennially fashionable ’70s trash trappings and because of the lyrical ambitions that are partly at odds with its cheapoid preposterousness. The essence of Hooper: His movies just couldn’t get a grip on themselves.
The beginning is almost Lynchian: The camera tilts down from a explosion-proof red light to a record changer plattering an old LP. In an atomic-fear mid-1950s dreamworld conveyed through kitsch and blatantly stagy setwork, a young volunteer couple are subjected to an experimental anti-radiation vaccine called Project Samson in exchange for a tract home in the Phoenix suburbs and a new Studebaker. Nine months later, on the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, their son is born with pyrokinetic powers; he roasts them alive in their hospital bed. We jump forward to 1990. The son, raised without knowledge of his dangerous abilities, has grown up to be a high-strung high school teacher (Brad Dourif). He’s in the middle of a divorce, he’s started dating a colleague (Cynthia Bain), and to add to the mounting stress, he’s coming up on his birthday, which ominously coincides with the opening of a power plant that his students have been protesting en masse.
Out of that wonderful ’60s and ’70s generation of American horror directors, no one was more blatantly indebted to the classic EC Comics, drive-in fare, and the full-color overindulgence of the Hammer and Corman schools of horror than Hooper. His movies are deliciously unsomber, unambiguous, and grotesque, without the classical taste and formal rigor of John Carpenter or the scrappy Rust Belt sociopolitical sensibilities of George A. Romero to ground them. So of course the metaphors are obvious: the anxieties of the nuclear family explosively fused with ’50s and ’80s nuclear fears; pent-up boomer angst and resentment erupting as literal fire; inherited neuroses as a military-industrial conspiracy, complete with gloved killers, scientists (including one played uncredited by the great ’50s director André De Toth), and manila folders stuffed with secrets. There’s some telepathy in there, too, and some stuff involving radio shows and biblical imagery. But the image of flames shooting out of rips and holes in the Dourif character’s skin is a powerful one. It has a sick and sad poetry to it, like Leatherface’s skin mask.
The Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who has to be the biggest Hooper booster in all of filmdom, loves this movie; it’s a major point of inspiration for one of his most celebrated films, Pulse. And you can almost see it in the way the Dourif character’s pyrokinesis, super paranoid backstory, and eventual descent into the realm of the blue-lit gothic overpower any interest in logic. The plot is spotty; what matters is that Spontaneous Combustion is about an angry man burning up from the inside, the people he destroys, and the combination of facades, geopolitical fears, and economic anxieties that made him. The more the fire-starting anti-hero burns, the more he looks like a decaying movie monster—a vicious, darkly comic cycle of loathing that, once started, can’t stop.
A lot of Hooper’s movies are about families, social niceties, and perverted upbringings, with the extremes and excesses of the genre—be it gruesome violence, shameless symbolism, or gratuitous nudity—as disruptive, destructive forces. And for all of its dysfunctions, Spontaneous Combustion might be one of his most clearly realized films from a concept-design standpoint, reflected in recurring color motifs, eccentric and artificial sets (the Bain character’s neon-lit apartment wouldn’t pass as believable in a latter-day Nicolas Winding Refn movie), and ironically quoted pop iconography. Which is to say that its messiness as a genre piece exists in some strange, tense relationship with its more coherent dramatic through-lines. But then again, it’s a movie about anger, and anger is supposed to be irrational.