The silliness begins in 1955 with newlyweds Brian and Peggy Bell undergoing a secret government experiment to give humans an increased resistance to radiation. As an unfortunate side effect, (don't all nuclear experiments have icky side effects?)their newborn child has developed the ability to cause people to burst into flame. Alas, Brian and Peggy are our first victims and our first hint that this is not going to be a special-effects masterpiece.
Jump to the present-day (late 80's) and our little firestarter is all grown up in the form of university student, Sam Kramer (Brad Dourif). Sam's opening scene is a school play audition wherein his performance is so pathetically bad that even his loving fiance, Lisa (Cynthia Bain) tells him not to quit his day job. If this scene was meant to ease the audience into Dourif's unconventional manner of acting by poking fun at him, it doesn't work, because we'll get to cringe a whole lot more as Dourif spends the rest of the film screaming and bugging his eyes out in an over-the-top performance that, for many other actors, would be a career-ending one. Even if this movie had a decent director, Dourif is woefully miscast and should really stick to roles that welcome complete psychosis like Grima Wormtongue (The Two Towers) and Piter De Vries (Dune).
Cynthia Bain doesn't fare much better, which is a shame because she does show some promise and is one of the better actors in the movie. Indeed, seeing her smiling face early on, while dressed in some attractive, if outdated outfits is one of the few bright points of the film. Unfortunatley, the screenplay soon has her bouncing between moderate to extreme hysteria, reminiscent of the closing scenes of Pumpkinhead, but without the believable motivation. It is actually a testament to her acting abilities that she can keep a straight, albeit tortured face through an increasingly ludicrous and muddled plot. In one scene, while driving her deteriorating, flamethrower of a boyfriend to the doctor, she has to alternately comfort and express her love for him while dodging the jets of flame shooting out of a hole in his arm. With driving skills like these she belongs in NASCAR, not this whacked-out flick.
If you think this sounds completely insane, just wait, it gets better - or worse depending on how you like your camp. After all, the words, "subtle" and "Tobe Hooper" are never found in the same sentence, let alone the same screenplay. As with Hooper's other works like Poltergeist and Lifeforce, the level of chaos and zaniness can only escalate, but in this case, on a very limited budget. Soon Sam Kramer is inadvertently toasting everyone around who even mildly upsets him - from a snotty radio producer (John Landis in a cameo role) to a friendly old security guard to an evil doctor/scientist who's trying to inject our poor hero with some green goo that looks fresh out of a cylume stick. All of this culminates in one of moviedom's most memorably silly climaxes that will leave you either laughing hysterically or uttering a very large: "huh?".
Bottom line: If you enjoy campy movies, Spontaneous Combustion can be quite fun at times. Unfortunately, the film is laced with enough seemingly serious acting and overtones to give the viewer the feeling that it wasn't meant to be funny. This, combined with a demented musical score and some seriously flawed writing make for an experience that can only be truly enjoyed by die-hard Brad Dourif (or Cynthia Bain) fans.
As far as this DVD version goes, the transer is very so-so and the only extra offered is a theatrical trailer. Blech.