THE MANGLER (1995) is a potent mix of silly Stephen King short story premise and unhinged Tobe Hooper fever dream. That means it has killer inanimate objects, but with the late Texas horror master’s sweaty, depraved lunatic tormenters stirred in like a salted caramel swirl.
Yes, this is a movie about a possessed industrial laundry press that seems to fold more people than it does sheets. You got a problem with that? I sure did in the ’90s when I saw this on VHS and thought it was the dumbest shit I ever saw. This time I was not so closed-minded. In today’s world we need to have more empathy for everyone, including murderous haunted laundry machines.
You may be wondering how the hell this Mangler (actual tagline: “It has a crush on you!”) manages to rack up a body count since it’s not exactly Christine rolling around town listening to George Thorogood, it’s a big-ass metal machine at least the size of a half-length bus and looking three times the weight, with no wheels. Well, I’m happy to report that there’s a part where (SPOILER) the heroes are hauling ass down a mysterious subterranean staircase squealing “We’re fucked!” as the Mangler chases and snaps at them like an angry pitbull.
But that’s only when the movie goes so far off the rails that it becomes clear that it never even was on any rails in the first place, and in fact doesn’t even comprehend the word “rails” when you say it to it and spell it out and try to explain it and everything. So for most of the movie the Mangler just sits there at Blue Ribbon Laundry – a long building with smokestacks like a scary slaughterhouse – and waits for one of the employees to lean up against it or reach near it.
And it keeps enjoying more nutritious human meals, not because the movie is ridiculous (although it is) but because one of the themes here is the exploitation of low-wage workers. It’s about these young women who work in this dank, dangerous place, and the first shot is of sweaty male supervisor George (Demetre Phillips, STONE COLD) standing above them on a catwalk yelling at them. Later he gets yelled at by his boss Mr. Gartley (Robert Englund, EATEN ALIVE, NIGHT TERRORS) for not yelling at them enough. “Work ’em like there’s no tomorrow!”
This looks like a terrible job, and they’re almost surely not being paid well or receiving benefits of any kind, not even like an employee of the month cupcake or balloon or anything. And after the first so-called industrial accident occurs the company immediately calls for an inquest, but the inspector and most of the cops are clearly in their pocket and they declare that “safety features meet local standards” and immediately get everybody back to work.
We watch this through the disdainful eyes of burnt out, hard drinking detective John Hunton, played by grumbly, gravelly fuckin Ted Levine (a few years after SILENCE OF THE LAMBS). He’s gotta be far and away the hardest boiled cop to ever work the small town of Riker’s Valley, Maine. Before we know who he is he gets called an asshole and he says “That’s Officer Asshole to you.”
I mean, what kind of a movie has this guy as the hero? A Tobe Hooper movie, of course. As JACKALS screenwriter Jared Rivet observantly pointed out on the Shock Waves podcast’s great tribute episode, Hooper had a pattern of casting character actors best known for playing lunatics as the heroes of his movies. Not just Levine, but Dennis Hopper in TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2, Steve Railsback in LIFEFORCE, Brad Dourif in SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION and Angela Bettis in THE TOOLBOX MURDERS. That sort of casting is always compelling, even in the one movie on that list that I think is bad.
Hunton comes to Blue Ribbon after the first “accident” and seems annoyed by all the pussies around who are too upset to look at the body. But as soon as he sees it his whole demeanor changes, and then he pukes.
There’s a sly TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE opening credits nod here as you see closeups of the mangled body each time the camera flashes. He has an interesting relationship with this old crime scene photographer (Jeremy Crutchley, DEATH RACE 3: INFERNO) who says weird things to him, seems to taunt him and later leaves important information for him. The most intriguing part is when Hunton is asking for copies of the photos and “pictureman” asks “Have I ever let you down?”
Hunton says “Yes.” Unless I missed something, this past incident of disappointment is never explained. And I like it that way.
Another weird thing: when Hunton calls him “pictureman” I guess it’s not referring to his profession. His name is J.J.J. Pictureman. Not joking.
Another another weird thing: I thought he looked like he might be a younger actor in old man makeup, and that’s because he is. Crutchley also plays the much younger mortician character. Who does this guy think he is, Peter Sellers? Why does he have two roles? What is the connection between them? I have no idea!
Gartley turns out to be even more grotesque and despicable once we enter his evil lair. It’s his office, really, but it’s ominously dark, with shadows and reflections branching vein-like across the stained, leathery wall paneling. I love the shot that looks up at Gartley so he seems to tower over his niece Lin Sue (Lisa Morris). It circles around them repeatedly, getting closer to their faces with each rotation. Israeli cinematographer Amnon Salomon had already worked with Hooper on NIGHT TERRORS.
Gartley tells her to go into the bathroom and “freshen up for your uncle Billy.” I wonder if Englund added the “Skedaddle” and the “Shoo. Shoo fly!” Before he (thankfully off screen) molests her, he dismantles himself, setting aside his crutches, then parts of his leg braces, also a tracheotomy plug and the shaded lens that hides his spooky dead left eye. Repulsive. He’s kind of a Mangler in his own right.
Hunton’s brother-in-law/next-door-neighbor Mark (Daniel Matmor, writer of NIGHT TERRORS and URBAN JUNGLE, a.k.a. HOMEBOYZ II: CRACK CITY) has a decorative sense that could be called the sane, hippie-dippy version of the CHAIN SAW family’s. He’s interested in numerology and shit like the hitchhiker is, and has an affinity for dangling strange decorations all over the place. But he doesn’t use skulls and turtle shells – more like windchimes, crystals, metal butterflies, a toy pterodactyl.
And check out this weird feather sculpture in his house:
He tries to convince Hunton that the machine is possessed by a demon, talking to him about belladonna and virgin blood. Hunton of course laughs him off and is humiliated when he accompanies him to a witness interview and blurts out a question about her virginity. But then there’s a crazy scene where a neighbor kid is found dead inside an abandoned refrigerator – the one removed from Blue Ribbon Laundry. Hunton flips out and starts trying to smash the appliance with a sledge hammer, causing an inexplicable ghostly apparition of smoke, lightning and POLTERGEIST television snow. It happens in front of numerous witnesses, including Pictureman.
So after that Hunton takes the supernatural talk a little more seriously.
Also, after Pictureman develops the photo he reveals that he is close to dying from something “eating him up inside.” Did taking a photo of the ghost capture it inside him and that’s what’s killing him? Or am I reading too much into it? I think you guys would be okay if I said that about a David Lynch movie, so I’m gonna say it’s valid.
It took me a bit to understand that most of the women working at Blue Ribbon are supposed to be young girls even though they’re played by adults. Until I figured that out they seemed to be behaving bizarrely, which adds favorably to the odd feel of the movie. Everything feels off. Weird. But not bad. This is not ineptitude. It’s just a warning that we’re in the hands of crazy people.
There’s definitely some of Hooper’s morbid humor in here. The mortician brags to Hunton in hushed tones about how hard it was to make a presentable body out of mangling victim Mrs. Frawley. “Can you keep a secret?” he asks. “I had to fill up her body with–”
“I hate secrets,” Hunton interrupts, so that we never find out what the trick is.
Many seemingly simple characters change unexpectedly over the course of the movie. George seems like such an asshole, but he turns out to have a conscience. He tries to convince Gartley to turn the machine off for safety, and when the boss refuses, he goes behind his back to do it himself. And he’s got grit. When his arm gets stuck in the machine he yells “DO IT!” until his friend cuts it off with an ax. Then it goes through and comes out as a burst of red steam.
There’s so many layers of secrets going on in this town, but the biggest one is that people who survive a Mangler accident become connected to it. So you gotta watch out for people with missing fingers and stuff. They’re like an evil secret society.
Hooper wrote the screenplay with Stephen David Brooks (who is also effects supervisor and 2nd unit director, and worked in the FX crews for LIFEFORCE and SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION) and a pseudonymous Harry Alan Towers (writer and producer of many Agatha Christie, Fu Manchu and Jess Franco movies as well as GOR II and the Gary Daniels movie CITY OF FEAR). Towers was 75 years old at the time, and had been through some shit. He served in the Royal Air Force during WWII, which led to running British Forces radio, which got him into the radio syndication business, and then TV production, and then movies. And in 1961 he was charged by the FBI for violations of the White Slave Traffic Act, allegedly prostituting his girlfriend Mariella Novotny to John F. Kennedy (earning him a place in many JFK assassination theories). Novotny accused him of being a Soviet agent whose job was to compromise prominent individuals. He claimed to have just dated her not knowing she was a prostitute, but then he fled the country while out on bail. The case against him was later dropped. Some speculate that means he helped MI5 and the CIA.
Good thing he did, because then in the ’80s he hooked up with Cannon Films, producing AMERICAN NINJA 3: BLOOD HUNT, RIVER OF DEATH and DELTA FORCE 3 as well as PHANTOM OF THE OPERA with none other than Robert Englund.
This is both a faithful adaptation of King’s short story (published in Cavalier in 1972 and then in the Night Shift collection) and a huge expansion of it. I think King is being pretty tongue-in-cheek about a laundry machine being literally possessed by a demon and requiring an exorcism. By adapting the idea so matter-of-factly and adding even more layers of ludicrousness, Hooper elevates it to a higher level of insanity.
Pretty much the whole story is here, but they added the entire characterization of Gartley, his near-cyborg condition, his abuse, and his connection to The Mangler. The whole thing with the refrigerator is from King, except he had it as a story that a guy tells to explain the concept of appliances being possessed. He didn’t have it happen to Hunton.
Most notably, I think, Hooper and his co-writers introduced the emphasis on the plight of low wage workers. A telling difference: in the book, the inspector really doesn’t want to approve the machine for use, and even believes that it’s evil, but he has to pass it because he can’t find “one thing, even a technicality, that was off whack.” He complains that “the state law is lamentably lax.” In the movie there’s no such concern. He approves it because the system is corrupt and cares more about profit than worker safety. That feels more true.
Hooper also underlines this theme visually. He keeps taking extra beats to linger on the people in the thankless working class jobs, like the mailman, the front desk cop, the person who raises the flag every day at the hospital, or the hapless refrigerator-movers who get yelled at by both Gartley and Hunton (though admittedly they sort of earn it in both cases). There’s a scene where Hunton enters a hospital and the camera doesn’t follow him, it stays up front watching a janitor mop the floor. (At first I missed the possibly looped line revealing that Hunton knows the guy and that he’s doing public service.)
And Gartley tells us that sacrificing virgins to his laundry machine is what keeps the town’s industry running. Yeah, sure it does, asshole. All these people working their asses off all day have nothing to do with it. Go mangle yourself, you dumb fuck.
When Hooper died, King paid tribute to him on Twitter:
Sorry to hear Tobe Hooper passed. He did a terrific job directing the ‘SALEM’S LOT miniseries, back in the day. He will be missed.
— Stephen King (@StephenKing) August 27, 2017
I thought it was kinda funny – if understandable – that he didn’t mention THE MANGLER. But now that I’ve re-watched it I feel like I owe it an apology. And the weird thing is, it’s not like there was a ton of amazing horror to overshadow it that year. There was SEVEN, and DAY OF THE BEAST (which I didn’t see until later anyway) and TALES FROM THE HOOD and DEMON KNIGHT are fun and I sort of like SPECIES I suppose and I should see THE PROPHECY and CASTLE FREAK. But then you have an okay CANDYMAN sequel and one of the worst HALLOWEENs. Clive Barker was doing his weakest directorial work with LORD OF ILLUSIONS, John Carpenter was doing his VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED remake (fine, but kinda pointless), Wes Craven was doing VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN, Hooper’s old partner Kim Henkel was doing TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE NEXT GENERATION. This is mostly a list of guilty pleasures at best. THE MANGLER has way more personality than most of ’em.
This is a one-of-a-kind movie slamming together the sensibilities of King and Hooper, uniting the crazy qualities of both of their work into one mega-crazy horror movie. I hope Scream Factory gives it the Blu-Ray special edition treatment some day, because I know from personal experience that it’s in need of re-evaluation. At the very least, El Rey or SyFy should show it every year on Labor Day.
(update: Scream Factory seems to have heard my plea!)