When I first set out to track down a copy of Society, I turned to my old pal, the Vulcan Video catalog search, which showed that there was a copy at the location nearest me. When I went to locate it, however, it was nowhere to be found on the shelf, and the kind woman working the counter that day noted that their copy had actually been sold several years back and that the catalog listing was an oversight (an unusual lapse for the fine folk of Vulcan). We did eventually track down a copy of the film in their stacks, one of those early double-sided DVDs with Society on one side and Spontaneous Combustion on the reverse. I was pretty pleased by this, because a double feature usually means an easy instant follow up article (just add water).
I was wrong. I was so, so wrong. There’s nothing easy about Spontaneous Combustion.
The film stars America’s non-darling Brad Dourif as Sam, the adult son of a husband-and- wife team who were given an experimental anti-radiation injection during a propagandistic Cold War exercise. Following his birth, both parents spontaneously combust after contact with their new infant, leaving him to be raised by the mysterious Lew Orlander (William Prince), a wealthy industrialist who acts as the face of the original experiment when his company takes over from the government.
Some reviews identify Sam as a would-be actor, apparently based on his first scene in the film, in which he recites some lines of Shakespeare on stage with a student, but I think he’s supposed to be a teacher, as is his love interest Lisa (Cynthia Bain). One can hardly blame the audience for being unclear as to who Sam is, what his motivations are, or for failing to follow the so-called plot of the film. From what I can understand, Sam was once married to Rachel (Dey Young), Orlander’s granddaughter, who was always pushing Sam to visit Dr. Marsh (Jon Cypher), who is secretly in Orlander’s employ. Since their divorce, Sam has struck up a relationship with fellow anti-nuclear activist Lisa, but this relationship is also the result of Orlander’s manipulations, and the supposed homeopathic medication she has been sharing with him is actually from Dr. Marsh. These treatments are provided in order to encourage the growth of Sam’s supernatural power to start fires.
All of this seems pretty straightforward, but there’s also the mysterious reappearance of Sam’s childhood toy that sends him off searching for the truth of his origins, Sam’s budding powers and the ensuing accidental deaths thereof (including a couple of police officers and John Landis in a cameo as a radio . . . technician, maybe?), a radio evangelist/medium who seems to be speaking to Sam directly for reasons that are utterly unclear, the sudden reappearance of a woman (Melinda Dillon) involved in the original experiment and her just-as- sudden murder, the murder of another woman who was investigating the soon-to- be-activated nuclear plant nearby, Lisa’s own pyrogenetic powers, and an inordinate number of conversations held on neon telephones.
The composition and plotting of this movie are bafflingly inelegant, and even two viewings left me unable to accurately gauge just what in the hell was happening at any given time. This was a frustrating viewing experience, both times, and not in the sense that some deeply philosophical films are hard to parse. Instead, Spontaneous Combustion feels like a unauthorized, non-union sequel to Firestarter that was hastily edited together by someone trying to recreate the experience of watching that film with a 104° fever. It’s a movie that actively tries to discourage you from watching it even as the story (such as it is) unfolds, challenging the viewer to a test of wills.
Despite the incohesiveness of the overall plot, I was able to discern two similarities that would reasonably connect this film to Society and, to the inebriated mind of some marketing exec, warrant putting the two films on a single disc. First, the actor playing Sam’s father, Brian Bremer, also portrayed Petrie, Billy’s rival for student body president, in Society. More thematically, both Billy Whitney and Sam are the children of working class people raised by wealthy elites for their own nefarious purposes. It’s a bit of a stretch, but there it is.
Even if you find yourself with a copy of this double DVD in your pursuit of watching Society, don’t flip that disc. It’s not worth it.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond