This year, I’ve dedicated myself to catching up on the work of Stephen King. His books have always been a bit of a blind spot for me, beginning when I was a kid and thought reading for pleasure was a laughable concept. As I got older, King was so ingrained in horror pop culture that I was never curious enough to try his work beyond a couple of false starts with The Stand (it’s so looooong). Recently, however, as I’ve finally become aware of the large chasm between experiencing art third hand and immersing myself in it, I’ve made it a point to start looping back around with heavy hitters like King. Of course, reading some of his classics like Carrie and Pet Sematary bring on the urge to visit the film adaptations since I haven’t seen Pet Sematary in years, and somehow, I’ve never seen Carrie at all. This would be an opportunity to correct some glaring omissions in my knowledge—a time to right some wrongs, to give some classic films their due, and gain the respect of my readers. But then I said, “Screw all that,” and decided to watch a movie about a killer laundry press.
Based on King’s short story of the same name from his anthology Night Shift, Tobe Hooper’s The Mangler (1995) focuses on the gargantuan laundry press operated at Gartley’s Blue Ribbon Laundry. The machine gets splashed with blood when one of the workers, Sherry (Vanessa Pike) cuts her hand. Of course, the press develops a taste for the stuff and starts gobbling up any worker that gets too close. On the case is Officer John Hunton (Ted Levine), a man so entrenched in the role of damaged noir detective that he obsessively wears an overcoat, even though it can only be early autumn. As the “accidents” involving the machine begin to pile up, he teams up with friend and demon expert Mark Jackson (Daniel Matmor) to uncover dark secrets in the town that all seem to point to Bill Gartley (Robert Englund), the owner of Blue Ribbon, whose lack of mustache can only be due to the fact that he twirled it completely off.
On paper, with the talent involved in this film, one would think it was destined for greatness. On the other hand, they were always going to be fighting an uphill battle in terms of building a compelling narrative that could make people forget they were watching a movie about a killer washing machine, particularly fans of Hooper seeking the grittiness of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, or the sweeping scares of Poltergeist. Given that the movie made less than $2 million at the box office and holds a 27% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (out of 11 reviews), I’d say they failed to strike a chord with audiences. However, after reading King’s short story, I had this nagging feeling that with the right tone, this movie might win me over.
In this case, the “right” tone wouldn’t be camp. I didn’t want a movie that would pause every five minutes to give me a wink or an elbow in the ribs to remind me how silly it was trying to be. A movie about a killer laundry press is going to be inherently goofy, but I wanted a film that would lean into it as sincerely as King’s source material. I was looking for the type of melodramatic horror soap opera that could be found in other horror films of the mid-to-late ’90s. Movies like Hellraiser: Bloodline and Alien Resurrection play with some pretty ludicrous ideas in their own right. Pinhead goes to space. Ellen Ripley’s DNA helps an alien queen give birth to a mutant Xenomorph infant hybrid. But these movies never look to make these things a punchline, and although I’m sure some out there may argue that they become one anyway, I’ve always appreciated their willingness to get weird with it.
In The Mangler, Hooper takes a similar approach by avoiding broad comedy, and instead of just being comfortable in letting the insanity of the situation permeate the film, cinematographer Amnon Salomon leans into skewed angles and distorted zooms that lend an element of the surreal to every scene. The over-the-top set design, particularly for the titular Mangler, brings to mind the gothic feeling of an old Universal horror flick. Wide shots taken outdoors look like they’ve been done on a matte landscape, giving a sense of artificiality to the movie that reminds us that this kind of thing just wouldn’t fly in the real world.
The performances take a similarly bizarre approach, and admittedly take a bit of getting used to. As Bill Gartley, Robert Englund is done up in enough old man makeup to make me wonder if he spent more time in the FX chair for this role than he did for Freddy Krueger. And somehow, his acting still manages to explode through all of those prosthetics. When he’s introduced, though, he’s so all over the place he doesn’t even seem to be reacting to what’s going on around him, but rather acting in shots that were filmed separately without giving him any context of what was actually taking place.
I thought perhaps Englund was just making some questionable choices, until the film introduces Ted Levine’s John Hunton, whose performance sprints by the strange and crashes squarely into bizarre. He reacts to every situation, be it having an icebox dropped on him or witnessing the death of a longtime friend, with the same taciturn impatience of a drunk who’s just spilled his last beer on his pants.
I can only liken my introduction to these characters to that instant when you take a drink from a cup expecting water and get soda. I love soda, but if I’m not expecting those bubbles, the initial jolt can be a bit jarring. But once you let your brain adjust, things go down smoother, and the experience can become that much more enjoyable.
Now, I know you’ll be shocked to hear this, but this movie does have its flaws. The most prominent of these is the town conspiracy angle added to the movie in order to flesh out the plot of the original story (Bill Gartley and the mystery surrounding the town of Riker’s Valley are nowhere to be found in King’s version). This choice tells me that screenwriters Hooper, Stephen David Brooks, and Peter Welbeck weren’t quite confident enough to just let the Mangler itself be the villain, although I suppose such a decision is supported by the fact that the film’s climax features that type of early CGI that proved no one except Industrial Light & Magic had a grasp of the technology yet.
In the end, I wound up liking The Mangler because I actively wanted to like it, regardless of the film’s quality. That’s not to say I was going into the movie expecting something that is “so bad that it’s good.” Instead, I expected to find a movie that I would enjoy, in spite of what other people would find to be faults, and for the most part Hooper and company succeeded in winning me over. I wouldn’t presume to say that your experience will be the same, but if you can roll with a movie that takes a laughable premise and asks you not to laugh (too much), you might get a kick out of it, too.