The Savage Stack - THE MANGLER (1995)

Tobe Hooper's goofy, maligned Stephen King adaptation is actually a key entry into the late horror maestro's body of work.

There’s always going to be – for lack of a better term – a stack of films we’ve been meaning to get to. Whether it’s a pile of DVDs and Blu-rays haphazardly amassed atop our television stands, or a seemingly endless digital queue on our respective streaming accounts, there’s simply more movies than time to watch them. This column is here to make that problem worse. Ostensibly an extension of Everybody’s Into Weirdness (may that series rest in peace), The Savage Stack is a compilation of the odd and magnificent motion pictures you probably should be watching instead of popping in The Avengers for the 2,000th time. Not that there’s anything wrong with filmic “comfort food” (God knows we all have titles we frequently return to when we crave that warm and fuzzy feeling), but if you love movies, you should never stop searching for the next title that’s going to make your “To Watch” list that much more insurmountable. Some will be favorites, others oddities, with esoteric eccentricities thrown in for good measure. All in all, a mountain of movies to conquer.

The thirty-ninth entry into this unbroken backlog is Tobe Hooper’s maligned Stephen King short story expansion, The Mangler…

One of the longest running themes in Tobe Hooper’s filmography is the horror of human progress. Eggshells (’69) found a hippie commune moving away from society, uncovering fantastical troubles in isolation. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (’74) featured a family of slaughterhouse professionals put out of work by advances in their industry (thus contributing to their cannibalistic segregation). Poltergeist (’82) saw suburban dilettantes ascertaining their new idyllic neighborhood wasn’t impervious to ancient malevolent spirits. Lifeforce (’85) brought space vampires down to England, a joint exploration crew getting too curious for their own good. Spontaneous Combustion (’90) dabbled in the negative bodily results of atomic testing. Innovation and discovery usually led to utter destruction in Hooper’s ghastly reveries, with attempts to escape into seclusion only leading to further frights.

So, it makes sense that Hooper’s second Stephen King adaptation (following his superlative TV rendition of Salem’s Lot [’79]) would repurpose Industrial Revolution imagery into an allegory about the dangers of small town capitalism. The Mangler (’95) is often regarded as one of the worst King pictures, transforming a fourteen page short story from ‘72 (first published in Cavalier magazine, and reprinted in the ’78 collection, Night Shift) into a feature length nightmare that was mostly seen as a quick cash-in on the mid-'90s revival of interest in the author’s work upon release. The premise was preposterous even on the page – a haggard detective (Ted Levine) investigates a series of grisly deaths at a commercial laundry facility (owned by a one-eyed, barely standing Robert Englund) that have been perpetrated by a possessed, ancient press. But the end result is a prime example of the type of cinema Hooper would make his name on - a ludicrous, gothic dream, filled with disgusting gore and the shock auteur’s penchant for unbridled ghoulishness.

The town of Rikers Valley (dubbed “The Industrial Heart of Maine” on its welcome sign) is a diseased borough, ostensibly caught in some sort of Americana time loop, as it's never really made clear what era Hooper’s twisted piece of anti-reality is set in. One thing’s for certain – an evil ailment has caused this once quiet, lovely municipality to become a rotting shell of its former self, and it isn’t hard to suppose the pestilence stems from Bill Gartley’s Blue Ribbon Laundry. The cavernous factory’s manned by a barking foreman (Demetre Phillips), who oversees a concrete floor populated almost exclusively by women, both young and old. High up in the owner’s office is Gartley (Englund), who emerges from his lair like a tawdry lizard, hissing at his middle management to keep “these dumb women” working. It’s a scene right out of an acid-tinged high school textbook, teaching the history of American labor during the early 1800s. These meek female laborers are slaves, and if poor old Mrs. Frawley (Vera Blacker) gets herself caught in the press, then it’s probably her fault for not minding the safety bar. An investigation into her horrific demise rules it as nothing more than an unfortunate accident, and the Blue Ribbon keeps on churning, the chemicals used to starch these folded bed sheets seeping out into Rikers’ environment, causing the townspeople to own a tired, contaminated sheen of mortality at all times.

But Detective Hunton (Levine) and his demonologist (no, really) brother-in-law Mark (Daniel Matmor) aren’t entirely convinced that Blue Ribbon isn’t somehow behind Mrs. Frawley’s death (or the accident involving a steam pipe that occurs the very next day), and ponder how it’s so easily swept under the proverbial rug. Mark instantly jumps to the idea that the press may be possessed, while Hunton is (of course) skeptical. But a seemingly unrelated incident involving a ghostly refrigerator (which explodes in blue light like a lost scene from Poltergeist) makes a believer out of the cop. Further inquiries uncover a shady cabal that Gartley’s led for a solid portion of his existence, where the machine is part of ritual sacrifices; virginal daughters fed to it in exchange for wealth and power. It’s Hooper’s fascination with the corrupting influence of progress made textual inside one of his schlockiest pieces, as a small municipality’s captain of industry is also literally a Faustian conjurer of demons, who make him rich while Rikers Valley dies around him.

Hooper had established a great rapport with Robert Englund, stretching back to his first post-Chain Saw endeavor, Eaten Alive (’76). In that hothouse piece of torturous repulsion, Englund plays a sadistic good ol’ boy, ready to beat the shit out of a prostitute if it gives him a quick kick. With The Mangler, Hooper lets Englund craft another one of his rubbery '80s takes on a Vincent Price caricature (just like the actor did in Dwight Little’s Phantom of the Opera [‘89]), limping around Blue Ribbon and sticking his tongue out like a snake, just to taste the septic atmosphere. It’s a macabre turn, filled with tics and croaks that are repulsive, yet still difficult to look away from; an outlandish continuation of the work Englund performed with Hooper on the criminally underseen Night Terrors (’93), where the icon played the charismatic Marquis de Sade of a sadomasochistic cult. Meanwhile, Levine brings a grumpy everyman quality to the policeman looking into Gartley’s mess, practically burping every line in his trademark grouse. Both characters are great illustrations of how Hooper would often let his casts run with any impulse they had when building their roles, never really stepping in the way of an actor’s eccentric drive.

The Mangler really isn’t a good movie, but it's definitely a fascinating entry on Hooper’s CV, as beyond the thematic concerns, King’s bizarre universe allows him to flex the surrealist muscles he’d been honing since since ‘76. Blue Ribbon is a steamy, sweaty Hellhole, filled with metal machines that are dimpled and rippled, years of consuming flesh rotting them like bloated American corpses. The homes of Rikers Valley have overgrown lawns and collapsing white picket fences, the dream of progress leading to economic standstill and ruin. Hunton and Mark’s houses tower like haunted mansions, connected by a strange bridge that’s backlit by fluorescent lights and lined with dim electrical veins. This is Tobe Hooper’s vision of an anti-real United States – its good people hiding in the shadows of their blue-collar domain, while the fat cats erect weaponized assembly lines on the outskirts of town. Sure, there are technical errors galore (not to mention more out of sync dubbing than a Lucio Fulci picture), but Hooper was still using King’s blunt prose as a blueprint for his own garish dreamscape. The Mangler is the perfect example of how a minor (or, in this case, utterly dismissed) work actually acts as a sort of lynchpin, tying an auteur’s stylistic and narrative concerns together in a bloody knot. 

The Mangler is currently available on DVD, courtesy of Warner Archive.

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