Tobe Hooper’s The Mangler is one of those curiosities of the horror genre that didn’t help the director’s damaged reputation. The 1995 motion picture comes after the filmmaker’s foray in television with the seldom-discussed I’m Dangerous Tonight and the 1993 anthology feature Body Bags. He also helmed Robert Englund in 1993’s Night Terrors.
Hooper and Englund are back together in The Mangler, which is based on the Stephen King short story of the same title. While having Hooper, Englund and King under the same roof seems like a recipe for horror greatness, this outing suffers from a sloppy style and some hysterical acting. Still, there’s a distinct spirit lurking within The Mangler that’s worth a word or two.
The action begins at the Blue Ribbon Laundry Service, which is run by the crippled Bill Gartley (Englund). He’s a maniacal industrialist who doesn’t that his laundry press, the titular Mangler, is a vicious and dangerous contraption. When a woman is killed by the thing, police officer John Hunton (Ted Levine) is brought in to investigate.
Hunton works the case with his brother-in-law Mark (Daniel Matmor), who believes there’s something supernatural going on. Young Sherry (Vanessa Pike) is dragged into the fun as the two men believe the blood of a virgin must have something to do with stopping the machine’s reign of terror. As more people fall victim to the Mangler, time is running out for Hunton.
There’s obviously something silly about a storyline involving a killer laundry press and Hooper doesn’t shy away from the absurdity. He has the contraption come to life and chase the protagonists through the facility, complete with swelling lightning and snapping jaws. The machine has been inadvertently fed antacids made with nightshade, so it all makes perfect sense.
There is a rich subtext in King’s story, with a featureless working class fed like meat to the machine of well-heeled industrialists. This is similar to what Hooper contended with in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and its sequel, where the family unit is lovingly decomposed in the shadow of waning industrial work.
In The Mangler, the hints are primitive. The old woman is strained to the limit before she falls into the titular monster. By the time she’s been effectively garbled, there’s nothing left that resembles a human being. Hunton observes that her remains have to be carried out in a basket, a thought that makes him sick.
The heinous Gartley doesn’t give a shit. He even “dances” when a man is dragged through the Mangler. It’s all grist for the mill. Everyone pays a price. The soiled endlessness of the Blue Ribbon Laundry Service is a futile expanse. It’s scattered with despondent characters in dilapidated rags, like the women pressed to factory work in some sort of World War II scenario.
Hooper doesn’t press the subtext very far and most of The Mangler is a forgettable shell. It looks dreary and lacks imaginative cinematography, with Amnon Salomon’s work the stuff of a subpar television production. The gloom of the laundry service does sink in, but there’s nothing to offset it when the camera moves outside.
And the performances fit Hooper’s tendency against standard casting, which is a good thing and a bad thing. While quality character actors like Brad Dourif, Craig T. Nelson and Steve Railsback have carried the action in past efforts, Levine doesn’t fare well here. He’s all over the map, sharing more with Dennis Hopper in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 than someone of more consistent grain.
The Mangler isn’t a good movie. It has an awkward feel and Hooper’s sense of humour doesn’t come across as well as it should. The performances border on the terrible and the meaty subtext is buried in an echoing selection of cloudy effects shots and flavourless setups. While there’s something to this working class nightmare, Hooper’s inability to draw it out is disappointing.