Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Take Two: The Mangler

by Patrick Bromley
This is a movie only a Tobe Hooper apologist could love. Luckily, I am that Tobe Hooper apologist.

Here's the most important thing you can know about The Mangler before we can talk about The Mangler: it is a movie about a haunted laundry press. On the list of memorable horror movie villains, that's got to rank pretty low. But because Hollywood wasn't going to be satisfied until everything Stephen King had ever written was turned into a film, his 1972 short story (first appearing in the pages of Cavalier magazine and later in 1978's Night Shift, King's first published collection of short stories) was adapted for the screen more than 20 years after it was written. The good news is that someone had the idea of hiring Tobe Hooper to direct it.

I say "good news" because if you're going to find someone to make a movie about a killer laundry press, Tobe Hooper is the guy to do it. One can imagine a number of for-hire filmmakers (probably one with a background in music videos) trying to somehow make this material "cool" or scary or, at the very least, playing it completely straight. Not Hooper. He's a guy who understands the inherent ridiculousness in the premise of The Mangler and responds accordingly.
Ted Levine plays officer John Hunton, a cop investigating an accident at Gartley's Blue Ribbon Laundry Service. A young woman working there, Sherry (Vanessa Pike), cut her hand and spilled blood on the machine; it's been acting strange ever since, even pulling a woman in and smashing her into paste and burning three others. The laundry press now has a taste for blood, and Hunton's occult-obsessed friend Mark (Daniel Matmor) rightly guesses that the laundry press is possessed and has a long history of "accidents" with young girls in town, and Sherry is going to be next, sacrificed by her uncle William Gartley (Robert Englund, again buried under pretty bad prosthetics), owner of the Blue Ribbon. Old people and laundry presses are dicks.

There are even more ridiculous aspects of the plot that I haven't mentioned, like the possessed refrigerator that bumps into the laundry press at one point, apparently transferring a demonic spirit in the process, or the fact that the Mangler breaks free and begins chasing our heroes at the climax because it is fed some antacids (I'm serious). This is a movie impossible to describe with a straight face even though it never tips itself as being deliberately comic.

The Mangler was at a huge disadvantage from the outset, as it was released in 1995 -- arguably the lowest point for horror in three decades until Scream came along one year later and revitalized the genre. Stephen King horror adaptations were largely out of favor; this was the era (era) of Sleepwalkers and Needful Things and The Lawnmower Man. The only real recognizable star in the movie was Robert Englund, who never really had a hit outside of his Freddy Krueger makeup, and even that well had already dried up by '95 (despite the excellence of New Nightmare one year prior). Tobe Hooper hadn't made a commercial hit since Poltergeist in 1982. As it stands, The Mangler is his last widely-released theatrical feature. It made just over $1 million upon release and got torn apart by critics, pretty much sealing Hooper's fate for the next 20 years.
And while I can't quite say the years have been good to The Mangler -- it's still a movie that gets name-checked in conversations about both bad Stephen King adaptations and bad '90s horror -- I think its reputation has improved in the two decades since its release. That's because Tobe Hooper makes movies that are not so much ahead of their time, but out of time altogether. They're weird mixes of periods and influences. His Invaders from Mars remake combines a '50s sci-fi aesthetic with '70s paranoia and '80s creature effects, while Lifeforce is a '60s Hammer movie filtered through '80s excess (and cocaine). The Mangler is Hooper's tribute to German expressionism, combining that style from the '20s with a 1970s Italian lighting scheme and very '90s gore.

There is not a single moment in The Mangler that bears any kind of relationship to reality. That's not where Hooper's interests lie. He's a filmmaker that has long been misunderstood because his first film, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, felt so real and so visceral that audiences seemed to think that the failure of his every subsequent film to achieve that level of verisimilitude was a mistake. The misconception has colored the way the rest of Hooper's filmography has been received, which is ironic because even when he was making Chain Saw he thought he was making a funny movie. His tendencies toward bizarre dark comedy doesn't necessarily excuse the mess of The Mangler, but it might help contextualize it for viewers who would otherwise take it at face value. This is, in many ways, his most absurdist film, which is saying a lot when he also made the movie about the family of cannibals turning people into chili and the other movie about the naked vampires from space. Tobe Hooper has a high bar for crazy and The Mangler clears it.
Like a number of Tobe Hooper's movies, this one seems wary of technological "progress" (shades again of Texas Chain Saw and Texas Chainsaw Part 2) and ends up going underground for the climax, again relying on his favorite trope of "the bad place." Overlong, unevenly paced and cartoonishly broad, The Mangler is about as flawed as a movie I totally enjoy can be. Hooper exaggerates the visuals to their breaking point, flooding the frame with boldly colored lighting and hard angles. He shoots the laundry press with a mixture of menace and alien fascination -- it's industry by way of 1920s silent cinema. While the actors do their best to match Hooper's level of feverish delirium, Ted Levine feels somewhat miscast as a good guy and Vanessa Pike feels...well, maybe inexperienced is the best way to put it. Only Robert Englund seems to be making the same movie as Hooper, going so big that Freddy Kreuger would blush through his scars. It's not what would classically be considered a "good" performance, but it certainly adds even more color to a movie that's already more than a little colorful.

Despite its terrible critical and commercial reception, The Mangler somehow became a franchise and inspired two DTV sequels, 2001's The Mangler 2 (which isn't even about a laundry press, but rather a computer virus) and 2005's The Mangler Reborn. I have seen neither. I have no reason to. The Mangler is not the reason I enjoy The Mangler; Tobe Hooper is. His movies are for very specific tastes -- sometimes acquired, often not. I enjoyed this, his last theatrical feature, a lot more this time around probably because I've fallen much more in love with Hooper's work in recent years. I don't expect others to feel the same way. It's like the saying goes: one man's killer laundry press movie is another man's killer laundry press movie.


  1. Even though I l did a dorky bad 7 word review about the mangler I loved it when I was a kid and still love the style and madness. I was super frustrated as usual with the Hoops movies with how they're just never scary or even unsettling, and too often feel like he's just kind of tone deaf. This obviously isn't true with texas chainsaw massacre or poltergeist, but the brilliance of those movies adds to my frustration. I have similar feelings about Terry Gilliam; it's like their both stuck in their own imaginations going balls out 100 mph ALL the time. I can always watch me some liferorce, texas 2, and funhouse, but I wish Hooper had hit more home runs. He's like a utility baseball player that that bats .200, but you remember that game winning hit and that diving catch, and you fucking love him for it. He's my Brian Daubach. Any advice? I want to get over my Hooper hangup.

  2. I rented this as soon as it hit VHS and remember thinking "that wasn't exactly GOOD, but I had a bit of fun with it."

    I was also surprised that they kept so much from the story; a lot of small details (and even the fridge scene, which is alluded to in a line of dialogue in a different context, is introduced and fleshed out) that I'd have assumed would be left out are included. So while they expand on quite a bit, underneath it's still a somewhat faithful adaptation.

    I should give it another watch, I'll probably enjoy it even more this time around.

  3. I remember the preview for this was on the VHS for New Nightmare. So until about 2 years ago when I figured out what it was, it was known simply as "hey, you guys ever hear of a killer laundry movie?" I guess I'll have to track it down now...

  4. I just watched this for SMM and to complete my Tobe Hooper viewing and... WOW! This got green lit! Even if it "sealed his fate" at least we got another crazy movie out of this guy. Ted Levine's deep voice is a bit distracting (I can't get James Gumb out of my mind every time he speaks!) and his relationship with Matmor is bizarre...this whole movie is!