Spontaneous (2020)

It’s very difficult for the post-Heathers high school black comedy to match the exact glorious highs of Daniel Waters’s 1989 classic. In the late 1990s, titles like Drop Dead Gorgeous, Jawbreaker, and Sugar & Spice leaned a little too hard into the flippant cruelty of the Heathers template, while more recent works like Mean Girls, The DUFF, and The Edge of Seventeen aren’t quite cruel enough. That’s why it’s a little frustrating that Spontaneous is so dead-on in its post-Heathers teen comedy cruelty in its first half, only to abandon that black comedy tone entirely as it reaches for a more earnest, less humorous conclusion. Of all the Heathers descendants I’ve enjoyed over the years, this one starts off with the most promise to share its icy, sardonic throne as the queen of the genre; then it abruptly decides it’s interested in pursuing something much more muted & emotionally grounded. I can’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment for that tonal shift as a result, even if the movie still holds up as a cute, enjoyable experience on its own terms.

Spontaneous is a shockingly well-timed horror-comedy-turned-teenage-melodrama. It’s about a spontaneous combustion pandemic that spreads throughout the senior class of one specific high school, forcing the student body into strict quarantine as their friends & classmates explode one by one in spectacular displays of gore. All the isolation & unprocessed grief that’s been hanging over high school & college kids since the coronavirus pandemic derailed all semblance of normalcy in March of 2020 is reflected here in a way the filmmakers could not have anticipated. Regardless of last year’s hyper-specific health pandemic context, though, the spontaneous combustion phenomenon works well enough as a generalized representation of the social pressures & gloom that hang over the heads of all kids who’re trying to remain optimistic about their futures as our planet continues to fall apart. It’s difficult to plan for the future when climate change, nuclear war, or your entire senior class exploding into piles of mush all threaten to end the world as we know it, so you might as well live in the moment – spontaneously.

There’s a lot to be disappointed by here if you’re looking to complain. It starts very strong when having morbid fun with its premise, but gradually loses steam as the heaviness of the material outweighs what its teen-drama earnestness can manage. I personally would’ve loved to see a version of this same film built around the lead’s friendship with her bestie rather than her brief senior-year romance with the new boy in town, since it’s a relationship that’s much better established & more worthy of exploring. I also obviously have a major mental block in assessing it as its own isolated accomplishment without constantly comparing it to my beloved Heathers, which it only echoes in its first hour. Ultimately, these are probably smart choices on the film’s part in reaching out to a teenage audience instead of my dusty thirtysomething sensibilities. The big emotions of the doomed romance, the dwelling on communal grief, and the Spencer Krug & Sufjan Stevens soundtrack cues are all perfectly pitched to hyperbolic teenage Feelings in a way I’m not sure I’ve seen matched since Your Name. Hopefully that teen audience will find this small, off-kilter gem while its context of graduating high school mid-pandemic is still a fresh, relatable wound.

If there’s any irony in me nitpicking Spontaneous‘s comedy-to-melodrama tonal shift, it’s the way that trajectory matches my very favorite aspect of the film. It perfectly captures the way that high school kids will impulsively say something mean to people who don’t deserve it in an attempt to be funny, then immediately regret that decision. The movie itself has flippant fun with its exploding-teens premise until the blood dries, and it has to clean up the emotional hurt that’s left behind – which is the same natural tendency the lead has to fight in herself as she treats everything around her as a meaningless joke. There’s something distinctly Veronica Sawyer about that character trait, as well as something universal to anyone who’s ever been a moody teenager. This is a fun, cute movie about a fucked-up tragedy, until the fun & cute evaporates and all that’s left is the fucked-up part.

-Brandon Ledet

Double Feature Disaster: Spontaneous Combustion (1990) & Society (1992)

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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.

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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.

For more on February’s Movie of the Month, the satirical class politics body horror Society, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond