Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Director Report Card: Tobe Hooper (1995)

14. The Mangler

People sometimes make fun of Stephen King. I’m not the world’s biggest fan but, for his many flaws, he’s usually good for coming up with a really punchy, one-line synopsis. “Alcoholic family man goes crazy in haunted hotel.” “A small town is taken over by vampires.” “Writer is held hostage by psychotic fan.” You get the idea. King’s tendency for easily understood premises has clearly contributed to his success. By the same accord, that habit sometimes produces stories so high concept, they read like parodies. “How about a vampire who’s also a pilot?” “What if cellphones turned people into literal zombies?” “What about a murderous industrial laundry press?” Which brings us to “The Mangler,” the last of Tobe Hooper’s films to get a proper theatrical release.

Something horrible has happened at Gartley’s Blue Ribbon Laundry. Sherry Gartley, the niece of the business’ elderly owner, cut her hand on the industrial laundry’s machinery, splashing blood on the tread. Later that same day, a co-worker is dragged into the press, her body torn apart and horribly mangled. Grisly accidents continues to happen. Alcoholic cop John Hunton investigates, suspecting an ominous link between the Gartleys and the huge machine. His brother-in-law Mark, meanwhile, suspects that the laundry press is possessed by a demon. They’re both right. The Mangler’s murderous ways are connected to the occult dealings of the Gartley family.

While reviewing “I’m Dangerous Tonight,” I commented on the perils of making your horror movie about an inanimate object. In that movie, someone had to be wearing the cursed dress for its evil properties to take effect. “The Mangler” has a similar, but bigger, problem. The movie’s threat is a giant, immobile piece of machinery. What the Mangler does to its victims is incredibly grisly. But they have to get close enough to the machine for that to happen. They have to get a limb or bit of clothing caught in the gears. Therefore, the script forces characters to repeatedly get close to a machine that’s proven to be deadly. This doesn’t make the cast look very smart. The screenplay makes several awkward attempts to get around this issue but ultimately can’t defeat it. The simple truth is a stationary object can only be so threatening.

In “Poltergeist,” Tobe Hooper incorporated a message about big business not caring for the little people. In “The Mangler,” he revisits a similar theme. The film begins with the floor manager in the laundry screaming at his employees to pick up the pace. After Sherry cuts her hand, she’s told to get back to work. After Mrs. Frawley is torn to pieces, the factory closes down for a few hours before opening again. There’s another accident, several workers being burnt by hot steam, which doesn’t even illicit that much of a response. Every time one of these “accidents” happen, Mr. Gartley screams about productivity being interrupted. The money makers care so little about their employees that their deaths are only inconveniences. It’s not subtle but it does show that the story had some potential to say something deeper.

Truthfully, the film’s theme seems in service of a goofy pun. After the first death, the police insist a safety inspector, a judge, and a sheriff investigate the scene of the violence. After looking around for five minutes, they deduce that nothing illegal happened and that business can resume. Hunton correctly observes that Mr. Gartley owns the cops. Apparently, the entire town of Riker’s Valley is owned by Gartley. That he has some personal information on the town’s officials. In other words, the town’s “dirty laundry” runs directly through Gartley’s Blue Ribbon Laundry.I guess an obvious narrative pun like this was unavoidable, given the subject.

Despite having these two separate subtexts surging under the main story, “The Mangler” also incorporates a more obtuse theme into the film. John Hunton is haunted by the death of his wife. It’s why he drinks and why he spends the entire film with a haggard expression on his face. As the story goes on, brother-in-law Mark makes continued references to the laundry press being possessed by a demon. Gee, I don’t suppose somebody could draw a parallel between these literal demons and the personal demons that haunt Hunton? In case you don’t get this, “The Mangler” directly points it out. I wish the movie had ran with the callous businessman subtext instead of these other elements.

“The Mangler” stars Ted Levine. This was only a few years after his role as Buffalo Bill in “The Silence of the Lambs” made him an unforgettable part of pop culture. Levine would go on to play cops and military officers many times in the future, bringing a stately authority and dry sense of humor to these parts. Despite that, Levine’s performance in “The Mangler” is closer to Buffalo Bill. Levine sports a greasy, truly unflattering haircut in the part. He scowls during most of the movie. The character is hung over throughout most of the story, a state that Levine all too realistically recreates. Even after Hunton makes some peace with his wife’s death, Levine still plays the character as a man at the end of his rope. It’s such an odd, unappealing decision, making “The Mangler” an even harder movie to like.

Though Levine was no doubt known in 1995, he’s not the marquee name on “The Mangler.” That honor falls to Robert Englund. This is the third time Hooper has teamed with the man better known as Freddy Krueger, after “Eaten Alive” and “Night Terrors.” Somehow, it might actually be the craziest of the three performances. Englund wears heavy old age make-up, playing the elderly Bill Gartley. The character wears braces on both of his legs, wobbling around with two canes. Several time, Gartley falls down, forcing Englund to pantomime ridiculously as he attempts to regain his footing. Englund yells, shouts, and screams. He acts to the heavens. It’s maybe the most over-the-top performance of Englund’s long career, which is no easy task. His acting is drawing so much attention to itself that it frequently derails an already shaky movie.

“The Mangler” eventually comes to focus on Hunton and Mike’s friendship. As the two investigate the strangeness surrounding the laundry, the film develops into an unexpected buddy flick. Daniel Matmor plays Mike and the character is entirely ridiculous. He often rants about deadly nightshade and the rites of exorcism. It’s all very goofy stuff but Matmor is entertaining in the part. As the virginal Sherry, Vanessa Pike spends most of the movie in an extended traumatized state. Pike is decent in the part, even if she mostly just screams her way through the role.

In order to extend Stephen King’s short story to feature film length, Tobe Hooper and his screenwriters had to add a number of new subplots. A friend of Hunton is the crime scene photographer, who has the winking name of Pictureman. The photographer is dying of lung cancer and grows worst throughout the film. This storyline doesn’t add much to the film. For some reason, Jeremy Crutchley plays the part in extensive old age make-up and cameos without make-up as a coroner. Another unneeded addition to the story is Lisa Morris as Lin Sue, an employee at the factory that Gartley corrupts and seduces. This is another baffling subplot, with seemingly no purpose to the overall film.

“The Mangler” is ridiculous throughout. The film has many moments of unintentional comedy. The first time somebody is sucked into the laundry machine, it’s an okay horrific sequence. As it continues to happen, the audience can't help but chuckle. How often are people going to get hurt in this thing before they learn to stay away from it? That goofiness peaks when Levine’s coat gets stuck in the mangle, leading to him shouting and screaming at the device. Yet even that isn’t the funniest scene of the movie. That occurs when the Mangler’s evil spirit inhabits an ice box. A little kid gets stuck in the box, suffocating. Birds are caught inside, dying. Mike’s hand is clipped by the door. As potentially silly as the idea of a killer laundry press is, a killer freezer is much sillier.

“The Mangler” does feature some of Tobe Hooper’s trademark. The titular beast is an elaborate design itself and housed inside an ominous warehouse. A hospital set features some interesting production design, including arched doorways and checkered floor tiles. Yet the biggest Hooper-esque element is the film’s utterly bonkers last act. The Mangler claims Gartley before the demon is set free. The special effects are incredibly shoddy, the crawling Mangler being created with some laughable CGI. What’s happening is entirely ridiculous, of course, as the evil laundry press chases the heroes through the surprisingly spacious sewer beneath the factory. At this point, the kooky energy inside the film finally rises to the surface, reaching an enjoyable level of goofy genre fun. I have no idea if this was intentional. In fact, I suspect it isn’t. Yet it’s still the only time “The Mangler” really reaches a level of entertainment remotely close to Hooper’s insane eighties films.

So the film isn’t good. “The Mangler” is actually most amusing when it doesn’t mean to be, becoming a true example of “so bad, it’s good” cinema by the end. As a straight horror film, it fails. The plot is thin, the performances are broad, the characters are clichéd, the special effects are cheesy. Yet it’s never boring, which is more then I could say for “Night Terrors” or “I’m Dangerous Tonight.” Sometimes, it’s even giddily entertaining in its stupidity. The film flopped theatrically and naturally received extremely negative reviews. Somehow, “The Mangler” still spawned two direct-to-video sequels, whose connection to the original is apparently tenuous. It’s not a film I can defend from any aesthetic level but I get some enjoyment out of any way. [Grade: C+]

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