Sunday, August 15, 2010

Tobe or not Tobe: THE MANGLER (1995)

Dear Diary,

I have such a bad problem and I don’t know how to fix it. I saw Tobe Hooper’s THE MANGLER in the theater 15 years ago and didn’t like it at all. My problem is that over the ensuing years I decided to watch it again and see if it was really that bad. I am so embarrassed and wish I didn’t have such a terrible affliction. God I hope no one is reading this.


Life is all about second chances, right? Or is it about being smart enough to know you were right the first time? Regardless, I decided to revisit Tobe Hooper’s disappointing take on Stephen King’s short story about a possessed industrial laundry machine. See, that is how you can tell a devout horror fan from an average person – if they don’t openly laugh at the idea of a possessed laundry machine and instead say, “That sounds kind of interesting.” The only thing that could possibly be considered sillier than that would be a haunted icebox. Oh crap, this movie has got that too? Damn.

THE MANGLER takes place in Riker’s Valley, a Northeastern town and home to the Blue Ribbon Laundry owned by crippled Bill Gartley (Robert Englund). Housed in their huge factory is an equally huge Hadley-Watson no. 6 steam folder (aka The Mangler) that quickly proves its nickname by chewing up an old lady. Assigned to the case is bitter cop John Hunton (Ted Levine), who is outraged when the local magistrate deems the machine fit to run again after they check the safety bar for 5 seconds (“this inquest is closed”). When another accident involving the machine leaves a woman badly burned, Hunton and his mystic loving brother-in-law Mark (Daniel Matmor) begin to investigate. They come to the conclusion that the Mangler is possessed and feel that Gartley is somehow behind this. They dig into the town’s dirty laundry (yeah, I said it) and uncover a series of accidents involving the wealthy elite, the machine and 16-year-old virgins. Naturally, this doesn’t bode well for Sherry (Vanessa Pike), Gartley’s orphaned niece who lives with him and – MY GOD – today is her 16th birthday!

I’ll be honest and admit I was looking forward to THE MANGLER. I got to see Hooper at a Fangoria convention in 1994 and he previewed it by (wisely) showing the fans the end sequence where the titular beast chops Mark in half. It was chaotic, well-shot and extremely bloody. The short clip whetted my appetite and made me declare Hooper looked to be “back in fine form” to my friends back at their tables (something that took years to live down in a post-Tobe Hooper’s NIGHT TERRORS world). “He’s picked up where TCM2 left off,” the stylish scene had me thinking. What the clip failed to showcase was stuff like Ted Levine’s acting, Robert Englund’s hyper-acting and the film’s whacked out storytelling (yes, outside of a killer laundry press). Hooper may have brought back TCM2’s visual style, but he hampered it down with SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION’s boneheaded-ness.

Like most Stephen King short story adaptations, the film suffers from trying to extend a 20-page narrative into a feature length film. In terms of lineage, “The Mangler” appeared in King’s NIGHT SHIFT anthology. In terms of film heritage, it is closest to GRAVEYARD SHIFT (1990), another NIGHT SHIFT story about a factory horrors expanded to feature length (quick trivia: both stories originally appeared in the men’s magazine Cavalier in the early 70s). But the makers of GRAVEYARD had no illusions of greatness, getting in and getting the fuck out in 89 minutes. Hooper and co-screenwriter Stephen Brooks (co-producer Harry Alan Towers also added to the script as Peter Welbeck) bloat the film to an astonishing, needlessly complex and unnecessary 1 hour and 44 minutes. A film about a demonic laundry machine should never be this convoluted. And, for the love of the cinematic Gods, no film should feature a sinister icebox that suffocates little boys, spews blue fog and emits lightning. This scene is so random and out there that Hunton – in an odd bit of convergence with the audiences – mumbles “what the fuck was that?”

And now we get to the mumbling! Making matters all the more worse is some of the acting. Ted Levine, fresh off his memorable serial killer turn in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991), is the oddest choice for a hero given his speech impediment. He mumbles so much dialog here that you will be clicking the subtitles button on your remote. At least he gives a subdued performance, which can’t be said for lead villain Robert Englund. This is the fourth time Englund worked with Hooper and he is so completely over-the-top, coming off like a psychotic FDR mixed with Col. Sanders. I’m shocked the sets were still standing given all the scenery chewing he does. It is actually funny because the film becomes so predictable when he is on screen. Person gets mangled --> camera cranes up to Englund overseeing it --> he cuts some lame joke. In the annals of Englund overacting, this might be the top.

All of this is doubly depressing because Hooper turns in a really handsome production. Shot in South Africa, he creates a slick looking film with some impressive camera shots. Even if he apes his TCM corpse/flashbulb edits early in the film, you can respect that he is trying. Even the Mangler itself, designed by Hooper’s son William, is a sight to behold and an impressive piece of production design. Unfortunately, all of this is still wrapped up in a feebleminded flick about a killer industrial size laundry machine. Oh how I wish these production values were on a subtle horror flick with Hooper at the helm. Sadly, this was the last Hooper film to see a major release in theater. It opened in 17th place the weekend it came out, bringing in a measly $933,809 ($5 of that is mine!). Two direct-to-video sequels hit a few years later with THE MANGLER 2, where the title refers to a computer virus (wah?), and THE MANGLER REBORN, where a guy buys the remains of the machine from this film. Hey, that sounds kind of interesting. I’ll have to check that out *grabs diary*.

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