The Mangler is one of those movies that I think everybody knew existed, after all, New Line pictures was slapping the trailer for this film on every video tape they had in the mid-90s. The advertising hook was brilliant – a movie from writer Stephen King, directed by horror master Tobe Hooper, starring Robert England. It’s a creepy story about a series of accidents centered around a Laundromat in rural Maine. King himself had a great deal of experience with the machine they call the Mangler – he writes about it extensively in his book “On Writing” and his time working at the laundry as a young man that seems to have inspired this concept.
It opens with great atmosphere – the huge boxy machine melds steam punk and sinister intentions, yet it’s a perfectly rational piece of equipment. It’s lovely, all grease and brass – they have dirtied it up a bit to give us a grim repulsion and yet it doesn’t look like something just designed to be evil.
Robert England on the catwalk however, he definitely looks like he was designed just to be sinister. The old age make up looks rubbery but fits the character – like a grumpy J. Jonah Jamison archtype.
Of course we know that the machine is the real monster here, and it’s hunger begins when one of the young ladies working it accidentally cut herself. The blood stirs it’s desire.
It’s actually quite interesting watching the machine – how just a subtle movement conveys hunger – conveys evil. You can almost see the machine wanting to chomp onto the workers hands, and blood spatter is a sinister foreshadowing. When the dire machine sucks in its first victim, the blood spray is gratuitous– covering the other women and coating the laundry red. It’s brilliantly framed and shot though it’s not actually scary per se.
The women up in the laundry are still covered in blood when sheriff Ted Lavigne arrives. His weak stomach keeps him from doing much in the way of investigation, but it doesn’t really matter – it’s an open and shut case. Industrial accident, nothing more, right?
Detective Ted relates the story of what happened to a friend that night – we get quick flashes of gore here, adding to the horror of what happened to this point, and giving us a better look at some of the details of this massive speed ironing machine. Lavigne‘s friend is a parapsychologist-a horror movie set up if I ever saw one! While he’s hanging out with his friend, the steam hose breaks and burns several workers. Detective Ted runs out to the hospital to check on them and investigate further. His parapsychologist friend Mark suspects that the machine might be possessed or haunted in some way, but Ted isn’t having any of it. Mark press on, and while back at the laundry – the mangler is hungry.
Detective Ted continues his investigation, interviewing the first witness and then coming across a discarded refrigerator from the laundry. It seems that the evil can travel. The fridge is a killer as well – not for long though, as Ted attacks it with a hammer and demonic energy pours out in brilliant blue electricity. It’s enough to convince Detective Ted that psychic Mark might just be onto something.
A trip to the morgue doesn’t turn up anything new so Detective Ted heads over to the laundry to get a better look at the mangler. The machine grabs his jacket and tries to pull him in, he escapes, and then it’s upstairs to confront Robert England. It’s an explosive confrontation which helps me to understand just how important a figure England is to this town – the biggest business owner, the biggest employer, the very lifeblood of this small hamlet. Lavigne is angry though, no longer caring about his pension, no longer caring about his position – all he wants to do is shut the laundry down. England won’t be intimidated and sends him on his way, after all, it’s time to make some calls… After he gets Detective Ted thrown off the case, England returns upstairs and and reveals the backstory to a young ingenue.
Back at Home, Psychic Mark has figured out the best way to exercise the Demons from the machine. What they don’t know is the foreman of the laundry has also had enough of the accidents and is ready to dismantle the speed iron. The Mangler however, won’t go so easily. He survives been crushed only by taking an axe and chopping off his arm. The eyewitness runs off and we all know England can’t have that. Besides, she is the last one in town that needs to be sacrificed to The Mangler and Detective Ted has just discovered the pattern.
We all have to make sacrifices. It’s a race back to the laundry to save the victim and expel the Demon.
The ending is absolutely bananas… It’s 1995 so the CG isn’t great, but they’re wise enough to keep it hidden as much as possible. Overall, The Mangler is a fun film – better than it gets credit for, though perhaps coming up short of being a classic. The filmmakers proceed with an interesting aesthetic, mixing styles and looks to keep it timeless – old-fashioned suits and cameras, modern cars and hair, it’s hard to place exactly when this is supposed to happen and that’s to it’s advantage. Robert England, trapped in leg braces and arm canes is in his element – all of these devices give him stuff to play with and ways to ham up the performance. More than any other time in his career, he comes off as an old-fashioned Vincent Price sort, a truly maniacal figure. It’s a brilliant choice, considering the somewhat old-fashioned look and tone of his character. Of course he is here mostly for the name value – the part almost seems written for him. He doesn’t drive most of the action, but the movie wouldn’t be remotely the same without him.
I think it’s understandable why the film didn’t catch on. It’s less complex than what you would expect from a Stephen King film, and yet doesn’t particularly feel like a Tobe Hooper movie. It never entirely figures out what it wants to be – a monster movie, a detective thriller, or a pure Faustian bargain. In an era where horror was about to be dominated by the Scream slasher model and Japanese horror remakes, The Mangler was doomed to be overlooked.