The Mangler

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:

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!)

This entry was posted on Monday, October 16th, 2017 at 11:00 am and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

33 Responses to “The Mangler”

  1. Always liked this movie. I actually totally forgot it was Tobe Hooper. Might have to slot it in this month during my annual month long horror marathon as it’s been some time since I’ve watched this. Avoid the sequels at all costs though. Total garbage.

  2. Bad movie. Embarresingly bad at that. But it incapsulate a lot of bad memories working in a industrial laundromat. It was a smaller one than this pronon-inmate schlock factory. But from an expressionistic point of view it nailed it. Bad boss, bad personel politics and just a fucking bad experience overall. It doesn´t help that the boss physically threatened me at one point.

    But the idea of a mangler as a horror idea is pathetic. Stephen King should know it as he worked on a laundromat. The short story the film is based on is a lot more tongue in cheek than the film is, so I think King was just fooling around with ideas here.

    An industrial laundry mangler is possibly the safest industrial machine in existence. You couldn´t possible get caught in one of those unless you actually wanted too. And even if you did, anything bigger than a sheet passing through the presser makes the mangler stop immediately

    You could get a few bruiser from the clamps you attach the sheets too. Once you attache two ends to the two clamps the clamps rushes too the middle of the mangler. And when they get back, and they go back pretty fast you could get slammed. Those two occasions are the biggest concerns for injury.

    So bruises and possibly irritiation from the mangler not folding the laundry properly are the biggest concerns when operating one of these.

  3. The Undefeated Gaul

    October 16th, 2017 at 2:08 pm

    I saw this movie only once after it had just come out, at a sleepover party where me and bunch of other 14 year olds had rented it together with (I believe) BODY BAGS, and one of the VAULT OF HORROR volumes, which I later learned were just collections of Tales From The Crypt episodes in uncensored format, but those were never aired in The Netherlands anyway so it was completely new to us. As for THE MANGLER, I remember nothing but the hilarity of seeing the corpse of the first victim being carried out of the building in a little tiny basket, which cracked all of us up.

    I do still love the short story though, that made a huge impression on me when I first read it at a (probably too) young age. I didn’t get the tongue in cheek at all back then, was just hit by the shock of the gory stuff. I might even have had a nightmare or two about it, some images of that I still remember very vividly.

  4. I think it’s a little disingenuous to presume that King was working on the same model machine in Maine in the late 60s that you were working on in Europe in the 90s/00s, or that a case of demonic possession would not be able to override certain safety features regardless of the model.

  5. Sure, and that is why I give the short story the benefit of the doubt. But not the film.

  6. The Undefeated Gaul

    October 16th, 2017 at 2:17 pm

    We also rented THE BORROWER, by the way. Jesus, haven’t thought about that film in a long time. It was about an alien crashing on Earth and ripping peoples heads off and use it as its own to pass as human. Just googled it and saw it’s from the same director as HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, MAD DOG AND GLORY and WILD THINGS – wow. Don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone talk about that film – is it actually some sort of classic that everyone has seen or is it really as obscure as it seems? I don’t remember it being very good in any case…

    Man, this is bringing back memories of all kinds of half-remembered films I once rented at the video store when I was young, usually just because they had cool covers. Will probably spend the next 2 hours IMDB’ing all this stuff, see what comes back to me.

  7. I think why I bothered to bring up all the technicalities of a mangler is simply because I never thought the movie worked as well as the short story.

  8. The Undefeated Gaul

    October 16th, 2017 at 2:22 pm

    But it was a possessed mangler, so any safety features, no matter how many, would obviously not be worth shit. Is that such a difficult logical leap to make? :)

  9. But could you blame me from not thinking a movie about a killer mangler might not be as effective as my personal experience with manglers had led me to believe that they are safe as shit sonofabitches?

    Sure, I can imagine a place in which safety measures in industrial machines are not big issues ( third world countries). But I live in a world in which safety issues are so highly implemented for the idea to be scary is just simply ludicrous. And that is why I find Kings short story funny.

  10. Gaul, I never saw THE BORROWER, but I’ve heard of it. Its German title is ALIENKILLER, btw.

    About THE MANGLER: Never saw the movie, but I liked the short story. NIGHT SHIFT is the only King book that I own. It actually scared me, but I was pretty young back then. The two stories in it that scared me the most are still THE BOOGEYMAN (despite the silly Saturday morning cartoon-ish reveal at the end) and GREY MATTER (about the guy who turns into a blob after drinking spoiled beer). Both are stories that I would love to see turned into movies, although the first one is maybe the only of the two, that could easily turned into a full length feature film.

  11. I’m sure it’s the same reaction that any expert has when a movie Hollywoodizes their field of expertise. Mouth routinely sends me disappointed texts about improper battle strategy and combat tactics. Neil Degrasse Tyson doesn’t seem to enjoy most sci-fi. Being on film sets has made me realize how bullshit the depiction of filmmaking seen in movies about moviemaking usually is. It’s the curse of knowledge.

  12. CJ: Good call. “The Boogeyman” is the scariest thing King ever wrote.

  13. The Undefeated Gaul

    October 16th, 2017 at 2:41 pm

    I was just about to say the same thing, fuck The Boogeyman scared me. I think the book I had had an illustration and it was fucking terrifying… lets see if I can dig that up somewhere

  14. NIGHT SHIFT have all assortments of amusements on offer. Battleground is an hilarious tale of a hitman battling toy soldiers. Quitters Inc about a smoker who cuts an amusing deal to quit smoking. jerusalems Lot, not only a Lovercraftian Tale, but possibly a Chthulu story that is a prequel story to a certain King novel. Trucks , an unfortunate tale that gave birth to that miserable pile of shit that is ****** *********

    But, yeah, a fuckin fun short story collection overall

  15. I am the doorway freaked me out the most. The idea of having a bunch of eyes on my body is fucking gross.

  16. When it comes to what King has written that scares me the most, I´ll have to give that honor to Norman Daniels from ROSE MADDER. Everytime that novel forced me into that fuckers head I felt a need to have a shower afterwards. When it comes to crafting predators like that, King sure can write them.

  17. A GOOD MARRIAGE is also another one where he crafts a more mundane type of evil that gets under your skin and it´s incredibly effective. The supernatural stuff he writes usually does not affect me. But the human kind of evil he is so adept of portraying is by far the most disturbing I have evr encountered in literature.

  18. I like Maximum Overdrive. It’s not technically good but it’s still a hoot. It’s the first horror movie that I could remember seeing that had the balls to kill a kid. I don’t champion it for it but it’s a film that really doesn’t give a shit.

  19. Crushinator Jones

    October 16th, 2017 at 3:54 pm

    I think King’s best short story is The Jaunt, which is a sci-fi tale that stays pretty mundane until…well I’d hate to spoil it. You can read it online.

  20. I love The Jaunt as well. I wish there were more science fiction horror movies that don’t involve gore and slimy alien creatures.

    THE MANGLER seems like it would play out better if it were set in Victorian England or something. I’m all for taking liberties to make things more cinematic, but the mangler in this movie is patently ridiculous.

  21. I have loved The Mangler since I saw it on VHS in about 1996 and have watched it possibly more times than any other T. Hooper (R.I.P) film, well with the exception of the rocking good TCM2!! Though Vern you mention above “even in the one movie on that list that I think is bad.” which i’m going to guess is Spontaneous Combustion which I must say has finally clicked with me and I dig the heck out of it…

  22. THE JAUNT is my favorite too.

    Anyway, I watched THE MANGLER a long time ago and I didn’t like it, I’ve read the short story too and didn’t find it anything special, although NIGHT SHIFT overall is really awesome with a lot of great stories, which makes picking THE MANGLER to adapt all the more unusual.

    But here’s a funny story about the time I read NIGHT SHIFT ten years ago, after reading GREY MATTER I went out into my living room only to find a squirrel that had somehow gotten into my house hiding under a blanket, but I didn’t realize it at first, I just saw something moving, touched it and felt something squishy and moving, it scared the shit out of me!

    But don’t worry, I got the little guy out of the house safe and sound.

  23. THE JAUNT is on the SKELETON CREW collection. And not on NIGHT SHIFT.

    I love the SKELETON CREW collection more as it moves way more smoothily between stories and it is the one collection I recommend to casual King readers.

  24. SURVIVAL TYPE is still one of the greatest displays of depravity on King´s part. And I am almost convinced that the creators of RESIDENT EVIL was influenced of it when they created the “itchy,scratchy” diary entry.

  25. It’s “itchy, tasty” not “itchy, scratchy”

    And yeah, SKELETON CREW is the best short story collection, the others are all worth reading though, including the newest one.

  26. Okay, y’all convinced me to go get some King books from the library today. Good work!

  27. SURVIVOR TYPE ftw.

    The Boogeyman is pretty scary, The Jaunt is effective, Strawberry Spring is moody. There are a lot of good King short stories, but there is nothing crazier or more ghoulish than Survivor Type.

  28. This is one of those concepts like MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE that is just way too nuts to not admire. Maybe the execution is never the best but my god it at least tries to pull things off with a straight face. Had this been made today it would probably be all post-modern and meta to the point of torture.

    Glad to hear that revisiting this bizzare piece of celluloid recording has brought a new appreciation of it on Vern’s part. The sequel is even more bewildering. It not only completely ignores the obvious sequel setup from the ending of this one it pretty much becomes a hacknyed cyber thiller and Cronenberg rip off all at once. Pretty surreal shit.

  29. You’re getting your wish. Scream Factory just announced a special edition blu-ray will be released in December.

  30. Holy shit! Now I gotta buy it or I’ll look like an asshole.

  31. Love this movie and I’m glad I’m not the only one who spotted the TCM flashbulb reference. There’s another one too, when a character very deliberately smears their own blood on the protagonist’s vehicle, just like the Hitchhiker does with the Hardestys’ van. Too specific to be an accident. Hooper was signing his movie, I think.

  32. Great review, Vern. I was one of the few people who actually saw this in the theater back when. I dismissed it as crap too, but over the years I’ve found myself re-watching it from time to time. The premise is stupid, the performances are scenery-chewing, and it doesn’t entirely make sense. But there’s a scuzzy, uneasy vibe to the movie that fascinates me. It’s almost voyeuristic: I get the feeling that everyone involved was a little embarrassed by this shit, and they compensated by going totally over the top.

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