If we're being completely honest, Tobe Hooper mostly made bad movies. Sure, Texas Chain Saw ('74) is an utter landmark in both genre and cinema in genral, and he'd occassionally show up to deliver something akin to a competent motion picture thereafter (I'm looking at you, Salem's Lot ['79]), but the majority of his output hovered somewhere between "bugnuts oddity" and "morbid curiosity" (and this is coming from someone who considers himself a Hooper die hard). That doesn't diminish his movies' value, mind you; especially when discussing how they represented an outsider perspective attempting to worm its way into an established, elite community (via a filmography comprised of what many critics would deem "disreputable" art). However, they're often very shoddily composed and constructed, their jangly nature only adding to the uneasy feeling that you're watching something from a diseased mind, utterly distrustful of American authority.
Spontaneous Combustion ('90) perfectly exemplifies Hooper's continuous side-eyeing of United States institutions, presenting us with two human guinea pigs (Brian Bremer and Stacy Edwards), who are holed up at the hydrogen bomb testing site in '55, having a nuke dropped straight above their underground dwelling. They survive and produce a child, before simultaneously exploding into flames - 6,000 degrees Centigrade, scorching their fleshy figures into nothing more than charred ash. America's first "Nuclear Family" goes up in smoke, clutching each other, while their baby is handed off to project leader Lew Orlander (William Prince), who's instructed to monitor the child's "potential". Little do they know, he'll grow up to be a foppish college professor (portrayed by Brad Dourif, showcasing some full blown Mega Acting) who suffers from migraines, a constantly feverish body temperature, and has seen every person who's ever crossed him mysteriously explode into fireballs. He's Carrie White, born of atomic panic; a roving creation of America's need to defend itself via the utter destruction of its enemies.
Spontaneous Combustion was Hooper's first theatrical feature after his disastrous three-picture stint with Cannon Films (which produced some of his most insanely enjoyable output - Lifeforce ('85), Invaders From Mars ('85), and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 ('86) . All three of those films lost money for the already flailing B-Movie house, and Hooper found himself out of work for the latter half of the 80s. Like his Cannon output, Spontaneous Combustion had a fairly healthy budget ($5.5 million), and flopped incredibly hard. It grossed a mere $50,000 in its limited run, and Hooper had to head overseas in order to get his next two movies made (Night Terrors ['92] and The Mangler ['95]), while pal John Carpenter threw him a bone, hiring him to helm a segment of his anthology series Body Bags ('93) in the interim (which was then cut into a one-and-done Cable Movie). After years of substance abuse and getting fired from multiple jobs (not to mention Steven Spielberg directing Poltergeist ['82] and still allowing him to retain credit), Hooper found himself in a rut that may have been his very worst.
That's not to say there isn't some intriguing charm to Hooper's nuclear psychic meltdown, as Dourif crafts the character into a post-Cold War super villain, who's able to completely annihilate his opponents. This is demonstrated best in a rather goofy scene, where our man of pyrotechnic rage scorches a telephone operator (played with bearded gusto by none other than John Landis):
Like a solid section of Hooper's filmography, Spontaneous Combustion is not technically "good", but certainly channels a hyper-specific brand of paranoia, that's been bred since his days making outsider hippie art such as Eggshells ('69). Now that he's gone, we've lost a genuine cinematic link to a generation that carried an almost innate distate for the power structures in the US, and filtered their own aching agonies into unique works of trash art.