If you were to ask horror fans what they thought was the worst Stephen King adaptation, and what they thought was the worst Tobe Hooper film, there would inevitably be a Venn diagram that posits THE MANGLER square in the middle. Hooper’s second King adaptation–nearly twenty years on from his perfunctorily solid TV miniseries iteration of SALEM’S LOT–was a massive critical failure and box office bomb, chucking a wrench into the machinery of high end King movies while putting the final nails in the cinematic coffin of its poor beleaguered director, who spent the ensuing decades after his landmark THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE essentially needing to prove and re-prove himself in the eyes of a perpetually skeptical Hollywood establishment (a fact only perpetuated by those ongoing “who really directed POLTERGEIST?” rumors spun out, initially, by an on-set gossip chump). THE MANGLER was the sweaty, grease-stained last straw for Hooper, consigning him to a video store purgatory that saw the one time icon churning out cheap junk like CROCODILE (his proto-SyFy/Asylum all-time-worst low point) and slept-on weirdness like his occult-soaked TOOLBOX MURDERS remake for the at home market until his death a year ago at age 74.
I’ve opined on Hooper’s neglected legacy already, but I’ve always thought that THE MANGLER was the unfairly maligned bastard child of his career, the culmination of a couple decades worth of bias and rumors against the introverted Austinite. Granted, maybe the idea of basing an entire feature length film around one of King’s looniest short story ideas–originally published in his first collection of morsel-sized nuggets, Night Shift–was not the best of ideas. King’s short is the kind of bizarro universe idea that short stories are ideal at, perverting everyday things into short bursts of grue-streaked madness. Here, we have an industrial laundry press–the kind factories use to churn out freshly cleaned and folded linen for various hospitality businesses–being possessed by a demon and squishing unsuspecting fools who get a little too close to its clanking, grinding machinery. It’s a silly concept, and yet here we have a movie version of it, which may have been a bridge too far for most critics at the time to accept–the glossy Hollywoodized version of grindhouse “inanimate horror” junk food like DEATH BED: THE BED THAT EATS.
Yet, if you watch THE MANGLER with clear eyes, you can see that it’s almost a prototypical Hooper film: sweaty as the midday Texas sun (despite being set in King’s beloved Maine), full of the kind of perversely strange Grand Guignol touches that date back to Hooper’s days as an experimental filmmaker. Hooper has long opined that he felt bad that no one “got” the humor in THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, which is why he partially agreed to do its wild splatstick sequel. That same humor–outre, weird, confrontational–has always been a part of Hooper’s cinematic bag of tricks, and his best films have allowed for that wildness to burst out of his otherwise affable, low-key seams. It’s there in the nudie-Nigel Kneale apocalypse of LIFEFORCE, in the backlot driven sleaze of EATEN ALIVE, and in the wild, coke-snorting blood comedy of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2. And it’s there in the lurid garishness of THE MANGLER, possibly the most Hooper film of the ‘90s, and the last time he could put his distinctive brand on a big screen.
What makes THE MANGLER work, and why it feels like a perfect marriage of material and filmmaker, is that it leans into the director’s penchant for lefty anti-capitalist anarchism. Hooper was an old hippie at heart, taking swings at the established order. There’s a throughline from the cannibalistic Sawyer clan, their meat farm shut down and surviving the only way they knew how (by butchering human cattle) in THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE to the steam-drenched industrial hellhole of the Blue Ribbon Laundry in THE MANGLER. A mostly female crew of perspiring wage slaves dart around the massive concrete floors of this greasy bourgeois snakepit, feeding sheets of linen into clanking, hungry mechanical beasts. They are overseen by their owner, William Gartley (Robert Englund), a ghastly, foul caricature of Satanic entrepreneurship, hobbling around on metal-girded legs and shouting out “hell’s bells” as he leers, with his one good eye, at the more nubile flesh he’s keen on feeding into the business machine.
Into this sickly wasteland wanders John Hunton (Ted Levine), a surly, scowling small town detective tasked with investigating an accident at the laundry. It seems that kindly old Mrs. Frawley (Vera Blacker) got herself yanked into the shop’s centerpiece steam-presser and was turned into a mess of mushed-up flesh and guts in the process. It seems like your average, everyday tragic industrial accident and Hunton demands the “mangler” shut down, but he’s overridden by the town’s elders, who send their own lackey insurance investigator to okay its operation. Hunton is upset, even more so when the damned machine seems to be involved with even further accidents that kill and maim the tired and overworked staff. While Hunton blames workplace negligence, his hippie-dippie ex-brother-in-law neighbor seems to think that something more supernatural is afoot, suggesting that the machine is demonically possessed.
Eventually the human Grumpy Cat comes around to siding with his earnestly whackadoo bro-in-law, especially after an encounter with a homicidal spectral icebox that just happened to come into contact with The Mangler. The film sacrifices a few more cast members on the crushing altar of formerly pristine white linen, and the film concludes with (SPOILERS FOR A TWENTY THREE YEAR OLD FILM) the image of the laundry press unmooring itself, becoming a chintzy, mobile ‘90s-CGI monstrosity chasing its heroes through the sewers.
As ludicrous as THE MANGLER is, on the surface, there’s a palpable sense of rebellious fury at the way the workers of the Blue Ribbon Laundry are treated by their gleefully demonic boss. Gartley is played by Hooper’s frequent collaborator Englund in rubbery old age makeup with a smirking lizard-like ghoulishness. His cackling Gartley is a cartoon rich-sicko scoundrel–the kind of moneybags monster that would make even Mr. Burns blanch. While he fits in with Hooper’s garish vision of small town industry, he also grounds the movie in a way that may not have seemed as apparent in 1995.
Like a lot of Hooper’s work, THE MANGLER has aged better than it probably would have seemed to at the moment of release. William Gartley is a monster perfectly in tune with the #MeToo movement; the kind of sleazy, evil mogul-monster who forces his female underlings to submit to his odious sexual whims. He’s the slithery horror movie version of a type that we have seen, all too often, pop in our media lately, from Harvey Weinstein to Les Moonves. And even outside his skeezy, crocodilian anti-consensual “consent” power-grabs, he’s a monstrous purveyor of mercantile abuse, forcing the poor people in his employ, unable to find other jobs in their rundown slab of a New England town, to withstand a litany of abuses from verbal lashings to uncomfortable heat to dangerous and even deadly equipment, in order to eke out a meager paycheck at his largesse. He’s Stephen King’s Jeff Bezos, sneering and chortling as they literally give their blood to the machine of capitalism, standing on their backs (or, overlooking from his perch on high) as they die for him to grow wealthier, feeding both parts of himself and his loved ones (namely, the virginal niece he hires to sweat it out with the rest of the staff at his disposal) in order to gain money and prestige.
THE MANGLER was Hooper’s Grand Guignol cri de coeur against capitalism, as rich old white guys protect other rich old white guys against things like the law and morality and the good of the people. While those kinds of questions have always been raised by good citizens, in a relatively economically flush ’90s landscape, they may not have felt as welcome, which may partially explain the film’s nearly angry reception. But workplace concerns from perverted, manipulative bosses to standards of safety to the treatment of the working classes are more prevalent today than they were yesteryear, giving THE MANGLER a goofily vicious, ahead-of-its-time edge. Then again, maybe it was just Hooper’s aggressively cheeky, tongue-in-cheek style that may have also been the film’s downfall. The director has always had a deeply idiosyncratic streak toward the cartoonish that may not work to all tastes, and it’s fully on display in THE MANGLER.
It’s here in the performances of Englund and Levine, as Hooper lets these two horror heavies run wild with whatever direction they want to take their characters in. Englund treats Gartley like some lascivious, aged clown, croaking out come-ons and threats, punctuating both with an arid raspy laughter. Levine, meanwhile, makes Hunton one of the most eccentrically out-there heroes in a mainstream genre film, lurching around like some sort of shambling, half-drunk Frankenstein, popping antacids and gulping each line with a mumbly misanthropic irascibility. Meanwhile, Hopper doesn’t just cast one young(ish) actor–Englund–in latex old age makeup, but two, sticking actor Jeremy Crutchley as both a nerdish young morgue attendant clearly made up to look like King himself, and as J.J. Pictureman, an elderly and mordantly philosophical crime scene photographer who acts as a kind of mystical Judd Crandall sage for the galumphing Hunton. All the while, Hooper shoots this all on decidedly fake-looking South African soundstages that make the film’s Riker’s Valley seem less like a real Maine town than some desiccated, dried up reverse fairy tale, run down by it’s hopeless existence in the shadow of what is the town’s seemingly only industry.
THE MANGLER was sold on the collusion of it’s three big names in horror–the director of one the greatest horror films of all time directing an adaptation of a story by the Master of Horror starring the then-reigning horror icon!–but it couldn’t muster up much interest in genre fans at the time, opening on the March 3rd weekend to less than a million at the box office, and petering out by the next weekend with just $1.7 million, unadjusted for inflation. The film was mostly buried under a tide of bad reviews and limp desire for a killer laundry press movie, and has long held an unfair reputation as the sheer low end of King/Hooper titles, an idea only hindered by a pair of truly abysmal direct-to-video sequels. So it’s a nice surprise to see a company like Scream Factory giving it the attention it deserves on Blu-ray.
It looks as good as a modestly budgeted mid-’90s horror film done up in a palate of brown-black neutrals and mud hues could look, and they finally include the the fabled unrated version that includes long, loving glimpses at the pulpy gore that comes with squished up bodies that not even the DVD edition (which had theatrical and supposedly “unrated”, but just only slightly extended, options to choose from) did. What’s most remarkable is that the company actually blesses the film with extras that previous editions, which seemingly existed to fill a void, never did. It’s not a lot of extras, but more so than you’d think a largely unloved film would have, including a commentary with co-writer Stephen David Brooks and a 21-minute on-camera interview with Englund, who enthusiastically recounts his positive experiences filming the movie.
It’s an unfortunate occurrence that Hooper’s career, which, to be fair, was already sagging, was not able to withstand the box office firebombing his peculiar King riff received, tossing the director behind one of the genre’s most enduring masterpieces into the proverbial woodshed of direct-to-video filmmaking. But as flawed as it may be, as the kind of feverish, anti-lucid Euro-schlock riff on King’s small town marginalia it is, THE MANGLER deserves re-appraisal, not just as the defiantly weird, anti-capitalist horror cartoon it is, but as a film representative of its director’s unruly and individualistic style.
THE MANGLER is now available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory.
–Johnny Donaldson (@johnnydonaldson)