Stephen King can make just about any idea work on the page, no matter how ridiculous it actually is. But sometimes those ideas don’t always translate well to film. Sometimes they’re not in the most capable hands, other times it just comes down to the fact that the story can’t overcome its own ridiculousness. Something just gets lost in the adaptation process. That’s more or less what happened with The Mangler.
Without Stephen King steering the ship, a movie about an evil industrial laundry press just takes us into Death Bed: The Bed That Eats territory. It’s silly and it’s very hard to overcome that, especially if it attempts to deal with the subject seriously, as The Mangler does.
Of course, it’s not like the film never had a chance. It’s helmed by Tobe Hooper, who directed the iconic Texas Chain Saw Massacre as well as its underrated sequel, not to mention being the credited director on Poltergeist. Even looking solely at the work of Stephen King, Hooper directed one of the best adaptations of the author’s work with Salem’s Lot. On top of that, it stars frequent Hooper collaborator Robert Englund.
Normally, I’d be looking at production problems and behind-the-scenes drama when it comes to a movie like this. There are talented people involved, and they make something that’s kind of baffling. You wind up naturally wondering what happened. But in this instance, I’ve always found myself marveling more at the fact that these people chose to work on this film in the first place. Of everything in King’s oeuvre, Hooper settled on the short story “The Mangler.” He decided that this was the title he needed to adapt. He called up Robert Englund. Clearly, Englund must have thought it was a great idea.
Admittedly, I think the short story it’s based on is great. The last time I read it, I thought it was genuinely unnerving. I really did. There’s something about the language that simultaneously overcomes and embraces its inherent cheesiness.
But when it is brought to the screen, it’s just ridiculous. It’s so over-the-top, but it also doesn’t have anywhere near the budget to be as over-the-top as it wants to be. There are so many weird choices in The Mangler that leave you to question every single decision that was made.
And that’s why it’s actually an amazing viewing experience. As bad as The Mangler is, there’s no way I can say it’s not enjoyable. You’ve got the amazing team of late-career Tobe Hooper and Jess Franco’s screenwriter Harry Alan Towers in charge of the story. The decision to turn a movie about a killer laundry press into a detective movie is absurdly genius. I’d say it stretches out the joke, but the beauty of this film is that there is no joke. Not to the filmmakers.
Some of the most endearing B-Movies take themselves seriously. Troll II wasn’t meant as a comedy, after all. It was meant as a very serious environmental satire. The Mangler takes itself fairly seriously, with a few cartoonish moments of levity here and there. But the area it never wavers in is its attempt to convince you that this piece of machinery is genuinely terrifying.
To be fair, though, we’re not talking about a household washer or drier. This is an industrial piece of machinery that is kind of scary on its own. I get the concept. People have a fascination with gruesome accidents. Everyone slows down to look at a car accident. It’s a disturbing part of human nature, but a part of human nature nonetheless. The concept of The Mangler taps into that primal, morbid reflex. Work related accidents are a grim reality, especially in factory life.
As a movie, though, it has an immediately escapable villain. There’s no reason people shouldn’t be able to avoid the haunted laundry press. When it does start moving toward people, it’s hilarious.
Just because The Mangler isn’t good doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile. As campy and often stupid as it might be, that does nothing to change the fact that I want a legitimate Blu-ray release. I was very forgiving of B-Movies as a kid and I ate up Stephen King adaptations as often as I could. I thought they were the pinnacle of high art within the genre. But even when I was eight or nine and saw this for the first time, I knew there was something a little off about it.
There’s so much to recommend, simply due to the sheer watchability of it. Robert Englund’s performance is so great. It’s so confusing that it makes you question what both he and Hooper were thinking when coming up with this character. Englund is buried under makeup for no reason. He plays a character about forty years older than himself, walking around on crutches, coming up with this weird old crone voice. It would be one thing if we were supposed to look at it and think “Oh, isn’t it interesting that they hired a younger actor to play the old man character from the story?”
Except that character is nowhere to be found in the short story. The boss in the factory is only alluded to. He never makes an appearance. Which means that this very specific character is completely the invention of Hooper, Towers, and Englund. And I love that. They came up with a side character so absurd that he draws all the attention away from the actual monster. I don’t know how they didn’t plan on that, either. The killer is a mostly inanimate piece of machinery and the secondary antagonist is someone as charismatic and fun to watch as Robert Englund, obviously we’d rather watch this guy instead.
When the machine does completely come to life at the end, it’s the best, most absurd thing that happens during the entire running time. It feels like the only climax The Mangler could have had. Because it’s just ridiculous. But as campy, stupid and bizarre as it is, you’re never not entertained.
Ultimately, that’s the way I feel about the film as a whole. As hard as it might be to love The Mangler, it’s even harder to hate it. And that is, in its own way, a success.