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[KING'S CORNER] The Mangler (1995)

The Mangler - King's Corner Review

Welcome to King's Corner. A recurring series of reviews based on the Film and TV adaptations of Stephen King's novels, reviewed and released in order of the original source material publishing date.

Director: Tobe Hooper

Starring: Robert Englund, Ted Levine, Jeremy Crutchley, Vanessa Pike

Written by: Tobe Hooper, Stephen Brooks, Harry Alan Towers

Produced by: Anant Singh

Cinematography by: Amnon Salomon

Original Score by: Barrington Pheloung


A laundry-folding machine has been possessed by a demon, causing it to develop homicidal tendencies.

The Mangler Film Review


In the 'Family Guy' episode, “A Picture's Worth a Thousand Bucks" there is a cutaway joke about Stephen King coming up with a new book idea (his 307th according to the scene). On the spot he looks at a lamp on the table and says that his story is going to be about a couple being attacked by a lamp monster. Sighing, the publisher accepts it. For a casual reader it seems like a chuckle worthy play on the cliché that the author overuses the trope of using inanimate objects to induce fear. 'Christine' had a 1958 Plymouth Fury and 'Cell' turned everyone into savage creatures through their mobile phones. It is an oversimplification of his ability as a writer but it is given credence when you look at stories such as the 1972 short story, 'The Mangler'

As with 'Graveyard Shift' (another story lifted from the same short story collection, Night Shift) 'The Mangler' was first published in Cavalier magazine. It tells the story of a detective's investigation of a fatal accident at an industrial laundrette only to discover that dark forces may be at work. Growing up, King's mother Nellie Ruth King worked at an industrial launderette to support her family as a single mother. It was a gruelling job and one King himself would do when he was fresh out of college looking for a teaching job. The story came to him while working the job with machinery akin to the mechanical monstrosity of his short story. He saw first hand the damage could do to a person as one coworker had hooks for hands. 

The 80s were a boom period for adaptations of King's work, particularly from the 'Night Shift' collection. With 'The Mangler', producer Milton Subotsky acquired the rights to the story alongside the rights to 'Trucks' and 'The Lawnmower Man' with the intention of using them to make a planned anthology movie known as 'The Machines'. When that fell through, Subotsky sold the rights to Harry Alan Towers and Tobe Hooper. In 1995 after many issues in pre production including a first draft script written in 10 days and issues regarding the international boycotts of South Africa (where the film was shot) 'The Mangler' was unleashed upon the world. 

Robert Englund in The Mangler

The film opens at the Blue Ribbon Laundry, a place where the predominantly female staff are overworked and underpaid and it is here that we are introduced to the titular machine. A Hadley Watson 6, the mangler resembles a medieval torture device made of oversized (and near comical) cogs and chains. The workers are fearful of it as they drip sweat and grease through billows of steam. It is a great set and Hooper makes the most of it with lots of wide shots offering you an insight to the arch style he is going for. Through this he establishes the outlandish tone for the film which is akin to 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2' only he decides to push it further to the audience's joy (or despair) depending on their taste. 

In this scene he teases how different workers are close to being sucked into the machine to build a little tension but once it happens, Hooper goes all out with showing how dangerous it can be. In a moment that would put any health and safety accident video to shame, one of the elderly workers gets sucked into the mangler when they try to reach for their antacid pills. The result is an absolute bloodbath where she is turned into a puddle of gooey mush and Hooper shows it in all its gory glory, making gorehounds lean forward in their seats. 

It is in this scene that we are introduced to the laundry's owner and main antagonist, Bill Gartley (Robert Englund). Almost like he has been lifted from an EC Comic, Gartley is a ghoulish tyrant with leg braces, a milky eye behind smoked glasses and a large scar around his neck with a tracheostomy-tube in the middle of his throat. Englund uses all of this to his disposal behind thick layers of effects making delivering an outlandish and bedevilled performance, that despite being truncated by some groan worthy dialogue, is nevertheless entertaining. As he snarls at everyone he comes in contact with the character's cartoonish menace and corruption become all the more potent making him a real repulsive character but one that makes the film all the more watchable thanks to Englund's commitment to the role. 

Ted Levine and Vanessa Pike in The Mangler

Opposite him is the world weary and withdrawn police officer John Hunton (Ted Levine). With his dishevelled appearance, including a permanent five o'clock shadow, and a battered long coat he looks like a living cliché from an old noir film. He's no Humphrey Bogart but Levine's approach is one full of scenery chewing glee. Alongside his brother-in-law and demonologist Mark (played by Daniel Matmor with one of the most jarring accents you're likely to hear in any King adaptation) he wants to get to the bottom of what led to the accident at the factory, supernatural or not. Like Englund, Levine is so entertaining to watch he delivers ludicrous lines like, "Excuse me, Miss Oulette, I'm uh, investigating a laundry folding machine with a bad case of demon possession, and I need to examine you to determine whether or not you're a virgin!" in his uniquely deep voice. 

The caricatures in the film aren't limited to just Gartley and Hunton as Hooper's world has bizarre characters around every corner. The one that sticks out most is J.J.J. Pictureman (played by Jeremy Crutchly), a dying photographer who helps Hunton uncover the dark secrets of the mangler. In their conversations they go down the rabbit hole of how it links to Gartley's influence over town officials and the protection he gets from their corruption making the film needlessly convoluted. He dresses in clothing and uses photographic equipment from a different era which acts like a distraction more than highlighting the noir elements of the film. It is so confusing as to why these aspects of the film are pushed as far as they are because it is the last genre you should evoke when making a film about a man eating machine. 

When it comes to the female characters the only two that stand out are Gartley's niece Sherry (Vanessa Pike) and his squeeze Lin Sue (Lisa Morris). Their chief role in the film is to either act as a plot device or stay silent to listen to the villain or hero dictate their plans to them. You don't expect a film called 'The Mangler' to pass the Bechdel test but to have these women be nothing more than screaming victims is a waste. 

The Mangler Film Review

As conspiracies are untangled Hunton confronts Gartley for the last time to rescue Sherry from being sacrificed to the mangler for the bloody and bonkers third act of the film. With Mark's help, Hunton saves Sherry while Lin Sue is mangled and Gartley is folded to death by the very machine he worshipped for power. Again Hooper doesn't shy away from the gore and the practical makeup effects for these kills is highly impressive. The madness doesn't stop there though as Hunton and Mark attempt an exorcism on the machine only for it to become stronger (thanks to the antacids it consumed with its first victim of the film). It becomes mobile, chasing the trio around the factory killing Mark and injuring Sherry in the process. During these scenes the CGI version of the machine is shonky and stands out despite Hooper's efforts to show it sparingly and in shadows but given everything that has preceded this you shouldn't expect any less. It is one of the most erratic endings to any King adaptation but because it is so off the chain you just go with it and enjoy it for what it is (which can be said about most of the film). 

Out of all the stories in the 'Night Shift' story collection, this probably wouldn't feature highly on the list for stories crying out to be adapted. It is a simple and hokey premise that feels like it should be a segment on an episode of 'Creepshow' rather than a feature film but hats off to Hooper for doubling down on the arch nature of the story by throwing everything but the kitchen sink at it for this adaptation. It is a far cry from his work on 'Salem's Lot' and it simply doesn't work in the end as the film is overcooked and convoluted, but Hooper's ambition is admirable and shines through some of the more glaring shortcomings. It was never going to be the best King adaptation but in taking the spirit of the story and swinging for the fences there is some enjoyment to be had with 'The Mangler'. 

Verdict: ⭐️⭐️

-Joseph McElroy

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