One Hooper film still in need of a widespread critical reappraisal is 1995’s The Mangler, his adaptation of a Stephen King short story originally published in Night Shift in 1978. It’s Hooper’s last theatrical feature, and while the marketing made a big push for the fact that it was uniting Hooper, King, and star Robert Englund, the movie couldn’t overcome the hurdles that a) the mid-’90s were a weird time for horror, still one year out from the resurgence the genre would experience thanks to Scream, and b) it’s about a killer laundry press, a premise that might be a bridge too far even for horror fans.
Ted Levine plays officer John Hunton, a cop investigating an accident at Gartley's Blue Ribbon Laundry Service. A young woman working there, Sherry (Vanessa Pike), cut her hand and spilled blood on the machine; it's been acting strange ever since, even pulling a woman in and smashing her into paste and burning three others. The laundry press now has a taste for blood, and Hunton's occult-obsessed friend Mark (Daniel Matmor) rightly guesses that the laundry press is possessed and has a long history of "accidents" with young girls in town, and Sherry is going to be next, sacrificed by her uncle William Gartley (Robert Englund, again buried under pretty bad prosthetics), owner of the Blue Ribbon.
There are even more ridiculous aspects of the plot that I haven't mentioned, like the possessed refrigerator that bumps into the laundry press at one point, transferring a demonic spirit in the process. Or there’s the fact that the Mangler breaks free and begins chasing our heroes at the climax because it is fed some antacids (I'm serious). This is a movie impossible to describe with a straight face, even though it never tips itself as being deliberately comic. According to the commentary featuring co-screenwriter Stephen David Brooks, this is because most of the more overt humor was cut out of the film, no longer cluing audiences in to the fact that yes, much of this is meant to be funny.
There is not a single moment in The Mangler that bears any kind of relationship to reality. That's not where Hooper's interests lie. He's a filmmaker that has long been misunderstood because his breakout film, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, felt so real and so visceral that audiences seemed to think that the failure of his every subsequent film to achieve that level of verisimilitude was a mistake. It’s a misconception that has colored the way the rest of Hooper's filmography has been received, which is ironic because even when he was making Chain Saw, he thought he was making a funny movie. His tendencies toward bizarre dark comedy don't always excuse some of the messiness of The Mangler, but it might help contextualize it for viewers who would otherwise take it at face value. This is, in many ways, his most absurdist film, which is saying a lot when he also made the movie about the family of cannibals turning people into chili and the other movie about the naked vampires from space. Tobe Hooper has a high bar for crazy and The Mangler clears it.
For those who tend to find themselves on Tobe Hooper’s wavelength (or who at least have come to appreciate his special brand of insanity), there is a ton to love in The Mangler. The set design is incredible, all German expressionism and exaggerated Gothic weirdness. The gore is spectacular, especially in the unrated cut finally available on this Scream Factory Blu. Ted Levine, so memorably evil as The Silence of the Lambs’ Buffalo Bill, is cleverly cast against type as one of cinema’s crankiest detectives. Robert Englund, an actor who sometimes doesn’t know the meaning of the word “underplay,” appears to be having the time of his life as Gartley, piling on one affect and eccentricity after another—the old age makeup, the one blind eye, the voice box, the leg braces. He goes full Lon Chaney, and his performance is the biggest clue as to the intended spirit of the film: it’s big and weird and funny. It’s The Mangler in a nutshell.
One of the very last Tobe Hooper movies to make it to Blu-ray, The Mangler is given its due by Scream Factory with a good-looking 1080p HD transfer taken from a brand new 4K scan of the film.
The extras are more limited than the company’s usual special edition releases, but there are still some solid bonus features: co-writer/effects supervisor/2nd unit director Brooks sits in for a commentary (moderated by a writer from Mondo Digital) that’s very chatty and full of insight and trivia; as a fan of the film, I found it to be a very enjoyable listen. Robert Englund contributes a 20-minute interview discussing his involvement with the movie, which stems from a long relationship with Hooper dating all the way back to his supporting role in Eaten Alive. Because he’s such an engaging and gifted raconteur, it’s a good interview. There’s also some behind-the-scenes footage, a TV spot, and the original theatrical trailer.
Seeing as Tobe Hooper is my favorite director, I’m thrilled to have a nice Blu-ray of The Mangler on my shelf, and I’m also thrilled that it comes from Scream Factory, who continues to do right by Tobe. Because he was a filmmaker so often ahead of his time, I suspect audiences will finally be able to catch up to what he was doing with The Mangler and appreciate its wild mixture of styles and tones—an approach that seemed like an accident back in the mid-’90s, but which now reveals itself as the work of a sophisticated and ambitious voice in horror. Don’t get me wrong: the movie is also silly and insane, but it’s more aware of that than audiences once gave it credit for, and it absolutely leans into it in all the right ways. This is a film and a filmmaker ready to be rediscovered.
Movie Score: 4/5, Disc Score: 4/5