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.
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.
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.
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.