Written by: Tobe Hooper & Stephen David Brooks (screenplay), Harry Alan Towers (screenplay), Stephen King (short story)
Directed by: Tobe Hooper
Starring: Robert Englund, Ted Levine, and Daniel Matmor
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"There's a little bit of me in that machine... and a little bit of that machine in me."
After failing to resurrect Leatherface and then killing off Freddy and Jason, New Line Cinema was in dire need of a new horror icon for the 90s, one that could uphold the studioís reputation in the genre arena that carried it from fledgling indie to full-fledged major Hollywood player. To its credit, it made quite a spirited attempt with The Mangler, a project that saw New Line turning to a sturdy formula involving Robert Englund, Tobe Hooper, and Stephen King, three horror titans with genuinely iconic statures by this point. Providing further assurance and viability were the multiple reunions on hand, as this represented Hooperís second King adaptation and his fourth collaboration with Englund. You can absolutely see the thinking behind The Mangler, though Iím quite sure execs were swatting away whispered doubts. Yes, Hooper was several years removed even his Cannon Films glory days, Englund had to outrun his own Krueger-shaped shadow, and King adaptations were suddenly anything but guaranteed hits, but The Mangler must have felt eventful.
Of course, history tells us that it very much was not, as it came and went without much fanfare, perhaps because no one involved stopped long enough to consider that The Mangler is about a goddamn haunted laundry press. Now, Iím not saying you canít craft an effective film from this type of material (who am I to question King or Hooper?), but I am saying itís probably hard to sell a movie about a killer laundry machine, no matter how incredible it might be. And while I canít claim with a straight face that The Mangler is incredible in the conventional sense, it is an absolute freakout, forged out of Hooperís signature manic style. As silly as it might sound, thereís nothing disposable about The Mangler, an absolutely weird 90s dispatch that leaves some kind of impression with its cockeyed verve and style.
The titular mangler is housed in the bowels of Gartleyís Blue Ribbon Laundry Service, a sweaty, grimy industrial shop lorded over by a tyrannical owner (Englund) whose frailty and old age donít prevent him from terrorizing employees. When an accident involving an icebox causes a girl to cut her hand and bleed all over the press, itís a prelude to absolute carnage: moments later, the machine practically devours a poor old employee and reduces her to a mound of sludge that has to be carried out in buckets by paramedics. Onlookers insist that thereís something unnatural about the machine, almost as if it has somehow developed a taste for blood. Itís a theory that doesnít sit well with local detective John Hunton (Ted Levine, upping the filmís genre credentials), who is more convinced he can bust old man Gartley for extreme workplace negligence, no matter what his demonologist brother-in-law (Daniel Matmor) insists to the contrary.
And with that last sentence, I am pretty confident anyone will realize just how fucking nuts The Mangler is. With Kingís original short story coming in at all of ten pages, embellishments were required to fill out over a 100 minutes of lunatic mayhem, so Hooperís adaptation is stuffed idiosyncrasies and outlandish performances, with many of the charactersóincluding Gartley himself, who is only mentioned in the short storyóbeing conjured right there on the screen. Sensing that the ďkiller laundry machineĒ premise was essentially a license to spew absolute nonsense, Hooper imagines a world gone completely askew, transforming Kingís macabre short story into an overwrought freakshow adorned with a hard-boiled detective and his occultist sidekick, a virginal girl just waiting to be sacrificed (Vanessa Pike), an eccentric photographer (Jeremy Crutchley), and a perverse old codger with a sickly, pale blue eye that feels ripped straight out of the pages of Poe.
After effectively razing down the genre with a scorched earth approach in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Hooper seemingly had little interest in evoking his own cinema verite style in later efforts, preferring instead a heightened, sometimes even melodramatic style to envision unhinged worlds of various madmen and malicious entities. Rarely was this more apparent than it is in The Mangler, where Hooper constructs an anachronistic funhouse lined with distorting mirrors refracting over-the-top performances and a jumble of various aesthetics. Gartley is essentially a gothic cartoon overseeing an unreal steampunk industrial laundry service thatís perhaps only a half-step removed from the grungy, filthy textile mill from Graveyard Shift, at least in terms of sheer grubbiness. Meanwhile, Hunton might as well be operating in a 40s noir as he investigates a mystery bathed in moonlight and shadow, constantly trailed by the pesky photojournalist still operating a vintage camera with an oversized flashbulb (thus ensuring that what was once a menacing, iconic sound from Chain Saw becomes almost a jarring intrusion here as it illuminates gnarled remains still caught in the mangler). You almost wonder why Hooper even insisted on also tossing in a demonologist, but how else would the script relay the wacky mythology surrounding the townís sordid history?
None of these contrasting styles is delicately or intricately woven together but are rather appropriately mangled together in frenzied fashion. If Hooper had a singular, distinctive thread running his filmography, itís the manic energy powering The Mangler. Few filmmakers have been capable of distilling pure, cinematic freakouts as well as Hooper, and that sensibility is channeled into an awry, macabre vision here. As its premise suggests, The Mangler is a goddamned hoot, so why not indulge it for all its inherent silliness and go broad? Why not let Robert Englund round up all of the scenery and stuff it right into his mouth? Why not let Levine play a grizzled, burned-out detective with a heart of gold and let him have these weirdly sweet, affecting relationship with his Wiccan brother-in-law and the town photojournalist? Why not concoct an elaborate backstory involving a cadre of occultists sacrificing their virginal daughters to the vengeful spirit inside a haunted laundry machine? Why not rip off the climax of The Exorcist with a laundry press standing in for Linda Blair? If nothing else, Hooper really goes for it in The Mangler, coaxing terrific performances from all involved, no matter how ridiculous the whole endeavor is.
That The Mangler isnít a joke despite very much feeling like it should be owes to Hooperís trademark disdain and disregard for human flesh. Victims of the mangler arenít just butchered: theyíre completely shredded into a barely recognizable clump of viscera. After leaving so much to the imagination in Chain Saw, Hooper spent much of his later career shoving his audienceís faces in guttural nastiness, and this is among his most squeamish gross-out efforts. With Englund doubling as some kind of deranged carnival attraction host, The Mangler often feels like some ridiculous roadside Halloween haunt that just canít wait to fling unpleasant sights and sounds at whoever dares to walk in. It doesnít come without Hooperís trademark nihilism either, especially when you consider that the manglerís victims are working-class fodder, fed to the machine without remorse or regard by a callous upper-class conspiracy. One of Hooperís favorite preoccupations over the years, the capitalist machine gears up to claim lives and souls, subjecting lower classes to meat-grinders oróeven worseówarping their sensibilities to serve as one of its cogs, as is glimpsed in the ultra-nihilistic ending here.
The Mangler might not even be close to Hooperís best effort, but I canít help but think itís quite representative of much of his career. Conventionally speaking, itís not the sort of film thatís going to appeal to, well, most people. And thatís okayóitís quite possible that many folks (myself included) miscalculated Hooperís output over the years. Itís not that the likes of Texas Chain Saw and Poltergeist were flukes; itís that they just happened to have crossover appeal, where most of Hooperís other work didnít. Because make no mistake: the same person at the helm of those hits is very much behind the wheel of The Mangler. Perhaps his grip is a bit looser and his sense of restraint more dulled, but that gleefully manic spirit that defined Tobe Hooper is evident. Maybe it owes to a bit of middle child syndrome: while Hooper ushered in a new wave of horror, he did so in the shadows of Romero and Craven and never reached the reverence of later idols like Carpenter, Fulci, Raimi, and Dante.
When faced with such a lot, itís no wonder that it felt like Hooper had to practically demand attention with unhinged dispatches like this. Where that ferocity was misunderstood and overlooked during Hooperís life, it will no doubt reverberate through the ages now, echoing out into the ether like a whirling lunatic whirling a chainsaw. Listen closely enough, and youíll detect its greatness in all of his films, even the likes of The Mangler.
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