Adapting a Stephen King story is a tricky business. Despite the number of King’s tales that have been shifted from page to screen, Hollywood hasn’t quite pinned down a formula for how to make a successful King film. By and large, the general rule seems to be that if you want to tilt the scales in your favor, it’s best to stack the deck with horror royalty. Think Romero taking on Creepshow (1982) and The Dark Half (1993), or Carpenter with Christine (1983). Following that logic, a film directed by Tobe Hooper and starring Robert Englund and Ted Levine should be a complete blockbuster. But logic has failed us here.
The prize machine of the Blue Ribbon Laundry service is a monstrous device known as the mangler. It’s a dangerous press, but safety regulations seem to be the least concern of factory owner Bill Gartley (Englund). When an accident involving Gartley’s niece Sherry (Vanessa Pike) splashes blood onto the mangler, the sinister clunker appears to come to life, and it’s out for blood. Officer John Hunton (Levine) gets involved in the case when another worker dies, and he turns to his demonologist brother-in-law Mark (Daniel Matmor) when events at Blue Ribbon begin to defy earthly explanation.
There’s a decent amount to work with when it comes to The Mangler. As in the original short story, collected in Night Shift, there’s a commentary on American capitalism and gluttonous consumerism, specifically in how the working class is sacrificed in the name of dollar signs, and how the bodies of young women are exploited and abused with ease and encouragement in a patriarchal society. And then of course, a demonic laundry press comes to life and literally chases our heroes through an M.C. Escher hellscape because of some blood and a few antacids. It’s two completely different films. One half, the horror comedy headed by Englund in his droopy prosthetics and half-man/half-machine ensemble, is fun and goofy. The other half is a strange neo-noir tale with Levine moaning and groaning and carrying the weight of the cruel, unjust working world on his ever-so-broad shoulders.
What The Mangler gets wrong is trying to give equal weight to these two different stories being told. The safer bet would have been to embrace the inherent ridiculousness of the plot and go all in on the black comedy angle, much in the way that Carpenter does with Christine. In attempting to balance the humor with melodrama, Hooper creates a film that just doesn’t gel. It looks great–the sets are full of grime and slick muck and lazy steam and you can feel the woe and corruption practically pulsating in the walls–but visuals aren’t enough to save a disjointed narrative.
Short stories don’t always work when told in longer format, but there’s enough in The Mangler that could have made for an interesting feature. Small town elites sacrificing their virginal daughters could have been played up, as well as the more serious themes of corruption, greed, and misogyny. Perhaps Hooper didn’t want to strike out too far from King’s original work. The direction is often hesitant, as though he knew he had to choose between black comedy and melodrama but couldn’t commit. Unfortunately for him, and the viewer, neither half is strong enough to stand on its own and instead we’re left with something a bit more, well…mangled.
5 – Totally Terrifying 4 – Crazy Creepy 3 – Fairly Frightening 2 – Slightly Scary
- 1 – Hardly Horror