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The biggest problem with The Mangler, based on the short story by Stephen King about a haunted laundry press, is that it’s based on the short story by Stephen King about a haunted laundry press. Stephen King has written enough books and short stories to fill a small library, many of them arguably the best modern horror-lit has to offer, few as-of-today adapted to film. That the story about an evil laundry machine was adapted over countless other King works, even just some of the other short stories collected in Night Shift, makes very little sense to me. King often treads the line between genius and stupid: The Mangler falls way out on the latter. King’s best works explore – beneath the monstrous superficiality – fears related to real issues: puberty, religious fanaticism, addiction and isolation. As far as I can see, The Mangler is only about a laundry machine, something which rarely even frightens the most yellow-bellied of children.
Which is why Tobe Hooper’s film adaptation of The Mangler comes as quite a surprise. No, it’s not scary, not even in the slightest and you won’t be woken up at night with nightmares of possessed laundry chasing you. Suffice to say, it doesn’t do for your dryer what Psycho did for showers, but it is quite entertaining nonetheless. And it’s probably the best possible adaptation given the source material. Most of the short story’s problems – beyond the premise itself – have been corrected, most importantly the ridiculous serious tone. In the film, there’s an acknowledgement of the premise’s silliness. The almost eager acceptance of kooky demon-possession theories by Officer John Hutton to explain the laundry’s malfunction in the story is replaced with initial skepticism and ridicule at the outrageousness of such an idea. In other words, he’s just as amused as we are. Even the tone seems to acknowledge how ridiculous the whole idea is, throwing in loads of over-the-top gore and Robert Englund hamming it up in double leg-braces and an eye-patch. Hooper has recognized the idiocy and adapted accordingly.
The movie sees Officer John Hutton, played by Ted Levine, investigating a series of deaths at the Blue Ribbon Laundry, where several women have been sucked into the industrial steam ironer, chewed up and folded out on the other side like a piece of clothing. What at first appears to be a series of baffling accidents turns out to be something more sinister, involving demonic possession, the owner of Blue Ribbon Laundry and a young girl.
As has been mentioned, The Mangler is never scary, but it is very interesting, a considerable feat for a film centered around an industrial machine grounded into a cement floor. There’s some great gore set-pieces involving the machine, but even when the gore falls to a standstill, the over-the-top characters keep it fun and lively. Levine’s officer is a prick who storms through the movie throwing curse-words left-and-right, his best friend is a kooky new-age hippie obsessed with the occult and the Laundromat owner is a senile cripple who never drops a decibel below a scream the entire film. It’s silly, highly theatrical and doesn’t get boring. It’s never scary, creepy or even very funny, but there are enough little oddities piled in to keep up ones interest. A steam-ironer-exorcism doesn’t feel as out of place here as it did in the story.
And beneath all the mayhem and hamming, there is actually something going on in this film. Several additions to the film, particularly a new ending, reveal a commentary on the corrosiveness of capitalism. By the end of this Laundromat-gone-evil flick, there’s more substance than not only the story and its cheap carnal thrills, but probably most other horror works of similar nature. It’s not the most nuanced commentary, but there are some interesting developments along the way and it seems to have flown over the heads of most who watched it.
The Mangler is typically regarded as one of the worst King adaptations. It certainly isn’t the best, but most of the criticism surrounding it stems from the ridiculous premise. Indeed, it is ridiculous and I’m not quite sure why this was made in the first place. However, Hooper has crafted the best possible film out of this silly idea, by not taking it to seriously and turning the focus from the inanity of evil laundry to something of more substance. I wouldn’t rush out to get The Mangler, but if you find an old VHS sitting around the house (as I did), it’s worth a watch.
RECENT Comments: The Mangler
Robert Englund. See this film for his performance. This film is a lot of fun, but it also has A LOT you have to look past in order to fully enjoy it. The characters are great and Robert will make you smile. In the end, that's probably enough for this film to not be a waste of your time, but for many, it still seems that it was.
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