The film: The Blue Ribbon Laundry houses a big industrial press called The Mangler. When an accident occurs involving Sherry (Vanessa Pike), it becomes apparent that the press is out for blood. Officer John Hunton (Ted Levine) gets involved after another employee is killed and his friend Mark Jackson (Daniel Matmor) introduces the idea of demonic possession. Overseeing everything is the Laundry’s mysterious owner and Sherry’s uncle, William Gartley (Robert Englund).
When it comes to adapting Stephen King films, a horror pedigree usually helps. The man himself is handy to have around when it comes to screenplay duties. When you’ve got directors like George A. Romero and John Carpenter on board, you are guaranteed fun. With Robert Englund, Ted Levine, and the late, great Tobe Hooper all part of The Mangler, we should be golden, right? Well… not so much.
Stephen King’s short story on which this is based, taken from the Night Shift collection but first published in a 1972 edition of Cavalier, gives them plenty to work with. On the serious side of things, there’s a strong metaphor in here about capitalism consuming the industrial classes and a patriarchal society exploiting the bodies of young women for their own advancement. If you want to go for a comic horror, you’ve got the fact that the Big Bad we’re dealing with here is a demonically possessed laundry press brought to life by the blood of a virgin and some antacid pills.
What we get from Hooper is an attempt to both of these things at once, best exemplified in the respective performances of Levine and Englund. They do share a big scene, but even then it’s like watching two halves of different films spliced together. Englund is clearly having the most fun out of everyone and is starring in the horror comedy portion. Beneath a layer of prosthetics and hair so immovable it’s weirdly hypnotic, Englund’s performance as Gatley, the owner of the laundry, is a solid slice of nefarious magic. He hisses and snarls, clunking around on leg braces that make him look half man, half machine.
Levine as Hunton, in contrast, is set to Very Serious. He hulks his way through the film, looking like he’s wandered in from a neo-noir. There’s a lot of yelling, punching, and emoting, with a dash of incredulity whenever Mark says anything about demonic possession. He also manages some hysterically bad miming when he gets caught in The Mangler himself, legs flailing and rolling about despite it looking like he’s not attached to anything. I think his best moment might be in a photograph where he’s posing manically by the possessed fridge.
Now I’m not saying I would personally know how to fight a demonically possessed laundry press, but I think I’d cope better than Hunton, whose main tactic seems to be yelling things like “Leave her alone!” in the manner of a perturbed toddler who doesn’t quite know how to defend his mate from a school bully.
It’s hard not to compare The Mangler with Christine, another piece of machinery operated by something evil and as part of an equally silly premise. However, where Christine succeeds is exactly where The Mangler falls flat. John Carpenter committed to the inherent ridiculousness in the story and decided to make it a black comedy, one in which Christine was just as much a character as the humans in the film. Hooper occasionally strays into moments of humour, but for the most part, everything is dialled up to melodrama. We’re talking about possessed fridges and laundry presses after all. A lighter touch is needed.
Where the film does succeed is in a Texas Chainsaw Massacre sense of griminess, particularly in the Blue Ribbon Laundry. Everyone is sweaty and everything feels like it’s coated with a thick layer of muck. There’s a dirty brown colour to this set, like the rot has set in and cannot be stopped. It becomes a visual allusion to the corruption of the town’s authorities, not to mentioning establishing a cloying atmosphere that works far better than just about everything else in the film. It might not be very good, but it certainly makes your skin itch.
The Mangler is a very odd film and a slog to get through. The direction feels uncharacteristically clueless and there’s a real sense that Hooper and his team couldn’t quite work out what to do with King’s short story. There’s plenty that could have worked, the small town sacrifice and corruption angle especially, but for all its melodrama and overwrought dialogue, it’s simply not entertaining enough.
Scariest moment: Poor Mrs Frawley. A human being is not designed to be pressed, steamed, and folded like a piece of linen. What a gross image that is indeed, and kudos to the effects team for something truly disgusting.
Musicality: Barrington Pheloung’s score is almost comically lacklustre and generic, only really sparking into life in one or two scenes. A few high-pitched notes on stringed instruments do not a horror score make.
A King thing: Shady businesses. Whether it’s the Blue Ribbon Laundry, Leland Gaunt’s curiosity shop, or Quitters, Inc. to help you cut your bad habits, it’s probably best to take your custom elsewhere.
Join me next time, Constant Reader, as we meet Dolores Claibourne.