*/**** Image A Sound B Extras C-
starring Robert Englund, Ted Levine, Daniel Matmor
screenplay by Tobe Hooper, Stephen Brooks and Peter Welbeck
directed by Tobe Hooper
by Walter Chaw I think there's probably profit in taking the tactic that Tobe Hooper's The Mangler is his shot at the lurid comic book genre and, more specifically, the weird self-abnegating prosthetics opera of Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy. But I'm not the guy to do it. Sufficed to say that Robert Englund appears in fright latex, affecting equal parts Dr. Strangelove and Lionel Barrymore's Mr. Potter as Mr. Gartley, the decrepit, despotic owner of an old industrial steam laundry that features as its centerpiece the massive, four-story long Hadley Watson Model-6 Steam Ironer & Folder, which sits in the middle of his brick sweatshop belching steam like the boiler in The Overlook Hotel.
Stephen King has an obsession with steam, it seems, and a standing challenge to himself to infuse the mundane with menace. "The Mangler" is a short story in King's oft-reaped collection Night Shift (only seven of its twenty stories haven't made their way to the screen in some form or another), and revisiting it reveals the film to be surprisingly faithful to the details of the piece--another way of saying that the movie and its source material are equally stupid in their attempts to mine horror from a possessed laundry machine. Reason suggests it would be a pretty easy thing to avoid if push came to shove--it's like a haunted toaster, or King's own evil cymbal monkey. Junkyards and common sense were made for stuff like this.
As Gartley's counterpoint, J.J.J. Pictureman (Jeremy Crutchley, done up in what looks to be make-up identical to Englund's), acts the world-weary Weegee, snapping ghoulish pictures with a noir camera--one of many out-of-time touches that feed the Dick Tracy comparison--and offering up wizened bon mots too late to affect any sort of change. The character is a fascinating one as things go because he and the villain occupy the same alternate universe as the evil steam press: anachronistic, iconoclastic, ultimately ridiculous, but certainly tweaking the edges of significance. There's a rich vein of social commentary in The Mangler (just as there was in Englund's other masquerade ball, A Nightmare on Elm Street), most of it dealing with the Industrial Revolution and small-town castes like those found in King's The Eyes of the Dragon and "Dark Tower" series, but it's buried deep and it's unlikely there's much value in mining it out.
More curious is the question of what's happened to Tobe Hooper. His The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a modern classic of nihilism and class warfare, and his The Funhouse is a prototype of the ugly 1980s horror-into-exploitation cycle. Beginning with a series of hijacked films (Venom, Poltergeist), Hooper has earned his way into the basement as a director with a prurient eye better suited for television; though it's tempting for both the filmmaker and the viewer to want to hold onto past glories, watching The Mangler, one is left with the distinct feeling that Hooper is a guy with talent who's forgotten--or never known--what it was that made The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Funhouse what they were.
Ted Levine stars in The Mangler as the prototypical down-on-his-luck detective, marking days off the calendar until such time that he can sit around his empty house drinking and watching television like the hero of King's "Grey Matter"--the last good short story in Night Shift yet to earn a cinematic treatment. Just four years after The Silence of the Lambs made Levine sort of a cult figure, the film is the first to capitalize on his new status, its resounding failure freeing him to return to the character actor ghetto. But he's not bad in The Mangler, a judgment that comes with a little hesitancy because it's almost impossible to judge something like performance in a miscalculation as grievous as this. He's paired with Brit Daniel Matmor, playing the eccentric with a copy of Frazier's The Golden Bough who figures out that Stanley Steamer is Satan in cast-iron clothing and so decides that what the two really need to do is perform an exorcism. This leads to a chase through the bowels of the laundry (!) as stupid as the one that ends The Relic, culminating in a twist established with such meticulous care that anything like momentum is cast to the ether. If there was anyone left in the theater for it during The Mangler's run, I'd be surprised.
The Mangler looks fantastic, though, pulpy in a way that makes any manner of florid atrocity deliciously possible. It's too bad, then, that so much was squandered on dumb gore effects, dumber creature effects, and a premise that only works as a metaphor--a clumsy one, at that. Nevertheless, New Line offers up another of their sterling video transfers for DVD, shunting this miscreant seed home with a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen treatment that finds Hooper's saturated colors squirming like the creepy velvet paintings they are. Black level is slippery in the right way and detail is fine with negligible edge-enhancement. A 5.1 mix in comparable DTS and Dolby Digital flavours is surprisingly sedate given all the bursts of steam and screams that dominate the soundtrack--even the film's climax scarcely contains any satisfying atmospherics. The audio is ultimately a minor disappointment, however, since the volume is certainly satisfying where the separation is only adequate. Trailers for The Hidden and Critters along with a red-warning one for The Mangler share time with an "alternate scene comparison" option that shows three trimmed scenes alongside their slightly (and I mean slightly) longer "uncut" versions--mainly a little more gore is all, nothing to write home about. The disc promises DVD-ROM features, including the usual slate of weblinks and screensavers. Originally published: September 13, 2004.