Flame-Grilled Whopper

The people in my neighbourhood — my neighbours, in fact — who have been setting off their bonfire night fireworks since before Halloween, are undoubtedly arseholes, but I guess they aren’t as big arseholes as the person in my editor friend Stephen’s neighbourhood who set off at least one big firework in broad daylight. So there’s that. Anyway, we are now properly approach Guy Fawkes’s night — time for some pyrokinesis.

I yield to no one in my admiration for the good Tobe Hooper films, and I’ll stick up, in a half-hearted and befuddled way, for the merely strange ones which can’t quite be called good. And now I must admit that even the bad ones are still redeemingly peculiar… like SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION, which stars Brad Dourif and ought to be better than it is. There aren’t enough movies with meaty roles for this thespian.

Something about Hooper seems to need incoherence, and here he has plenty of it, despite a lengthy prologue and lots of exposition setting up and then unravelling a fairly clear conspiracy story in which an adorable ’40s couple are irradiated by the US army and give birth to a pyrokinetic offspring, who grows up to be Dourif. This structure was obviously too sane for Hooper’s liking, so he augments it with things like: Melinda Dillon as a German scientist who doesn’t visibly age from 1945 to 1990; a nuclear power station plot line, complete with miniature cooling towers, that doesn’t ever pay off or connect to the rest of the story; John Landis making a cameo appearance with his knee exploding; Dourif turning into a luminous puddle for no reason.

Pure liquid Dourif.

This crazy stuff is actually quite welcome — we need more of it — because there’s a creeping blandness to the characterisation and dialogue and settings, though a few lines stand out. “I heard you burned your finger. Are you OK? Should I come over?” is a great little telephonic speech. How come I never get attention like that? I’m not such a bad guy when you know me.

Hooper’s filming style is elegant and expansive as ever, despite some obvious budget difficulties — the first two key deaths happen offscreen, which seems odd for this kind of movie, and the opening desert scene is a terribly cramped and unconvincing interior set.

Question: is the worst Tobe Hooper film better than the best Wes Craven film? On the basis that Hooper is always at least dementedly distracting, always has stylistic surprises. Craven joints are certainly efficient and loaded with suspense and jumps, but never look very interesting, to my eye. His NEW NIGHTMARE strikes me as the only one with an actual idea in play, which it proceeds to worry to death. With Craven, the good stuff and bad stuff are oddly interrelated, and there are sometimes more ideas than the films can handle.

John Landis’s knee explodes.

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5 Responses to “Flame-Grilled Whopper”

  1. Since you’ve laid down the gauntlet in the second paragraph, let’s hear ’em: the good, the bad and the ugly from Tobe Hooper :P

  2. Off-Topic: For those living in the L.A. area Check this schedule I will be appearing “live on stage” and the “Unurban Coffee House” on Saturday at 4 PM where I will be interviewed about my work as a film critic.

  3. Wish I could be there!

    Tobes: Both Chainsaw Massacres & Poltergeist & Salem’s Lot are good.

    Invaders from Mars & Lifeforce are weird in sometimes good ways.

    Night Terrors & Sponty Combu are weird in mainly bad ways.

    Still have a bunch to see, or re-see to make my mind up about.

  4. Speaking in defense of Wes Craven, I’d rank his The People Under the Stairs above almost all of Hooper’s output. Probably in the minority on that one!

  5. Probably… I saw it once and wasn’t too impressed, but I have to admit it was peculiar, and in theory I’d give it another shot.

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