Warning: there may be one or two last act spoilers hidden away in the text, because some things are just too good not to mention them. Plus, it’s Halloween.
Horrible things are happening in the early industrial age looking industrial laundry of evil old capitalist Bill Gartley (Robert Englund in peculiar age make-up giving a performance permanently fluctuating between the ridiculous and the ridiculously inspired): gothic looking mangler number 6 is mutilating and killing off members of the female workforce in accidents that don’t look so much like accidents but rather as if the machine had an evil mind of its own. In a normal place, the mangler would be shut down right quick, but Gartley’s the most powerful man in town, and he only cackles evilly about death and mutilation, so on the mangler mangles.
Only police officer John Hunton (Ted Levine as a bitter, shouty, sweaty and irascible hull of a man with a peculiar haircut) cares. His investigation, involving the help of his “theoretical parapsychologist” neighbour and buddy Mark (Daniel Matmor), quickly leads to the assumption the mangler is indeed possessed by a demon. Finding that out and doing something about it are quite different things, particularly as our heroes take quite some time to make the connection between demons, pacts, powerful evil old men, and sacrifices of the virginal kind.
Like all films Tobe Hooper ever made not called Texas Chainsaw Massacre, this (sort of) adaptation of a Stephen King short story is not well loved; like some of these films, it can be a worthwhile viewing if approached from the right angle.
The sympathetic viewer will need to bring along a patience for the weird, a love for the artificial, and a tolerance for the blindingly obvious yet circumspectly told when it comes to plotting. In other words, this is Hooper’s early 80s Italian-style horror movie, with all the silliness, the gooey blood and the just plain inexplicable stuff this suggests. Of course, in my house, being an early 80s Italian-style horror movie is a good thing, and Hooper is rather good at the whole business too. I, at least, can only appreciate a film with two perfectly silly looking and rather unnecessary cases of old age make-up (well, it’s not difficult to imagine Englund’s there because of his horror idol value), a main monster that is somewhat hindered in being all that threatening by virtue of not being able to frigging move, yet that still finds victims willing to step really close even after corpse number three or so, a script that contains grand ideas like pretending Frazer’s “The Golden Bough” is some kind of magical handbook, and so on and so forth. And let’s not forget the utterly crazy finale when the mangler turns into some sort of organic mecha thing - a fire-breathing organic mecha thing to be more precise.
Hooper presents the glorious mess in a tone of hysterical artificiality that – apart from the Italian angle – mostly reminds me of his own Eaten Alive and Spontaneous Combustion, films that also share the off-beat – and again rather on the hysterical side – approach to performances, not exactly logical plotting and a political subtext so blunt you can scratch the sub right away (doesn’t mean Hooper’s wrong, though). There’s a lot of dry ice fog pretending to be steam so that people have a reason to sweat a lot, harsh blue and red light coming from places where blue and red light have no business coming from, production design right out of the industrial gothic handbook, and camera angles that eschew any idea of realism for the full-time grotesque.
The same goes for the bloody stuff: like in comparable Italian movies, believability or the facts of human anatomy or physics belong to areas Hooper seems to have no regard for or interest in, so people get mangled in pretty damn strange ways completely in tune with the visual language and all around bizarre tone of the rest of the film.
Following the fashion, the haircuts, the cars and the way people talk in the film, it is also impossible to pinpoint when exactly The Mangler is supposed to take place; or rather, it is clear it’s not supposed to take place at a precise point in time at all but in a grotesque nightmare space born out of the corrupting influences of power and money, a place and time that combines 40s movie accents, Italian gore, industrial gothic and random elements of the year the film was actually produced in with wild abandon. It’s not so much a place as a state of mind turned visual. Again, the political subtext about the way capitalism turns everything into ruined shadows of its own seems pretty clear to me.
But, my imaginary reader will ask (what ever did I do before I made you up?), is The Mangler entertaining? Well, to me it is, but I can see how somebody could get bored or annoyed by it easily. It is, after all artificial, grotesque, more than just a bit silly, and most problematic at all, it seems to be the kind of horror film that’s not actually putting much (or any) work into being frightening, or creepy, or suspenseful, using all its energy for the grotesque mood, to bring a bit of weirdness on screen, and to talk politics, so if you go in expecting to be frightened, or shocked, you’ll probably hate it with a passion, and you won’t be wrong about it.
Me, on the other hand, love to wallow in a film that’s all weirdness and grotesqueness all the time, and if the price for that is a horror not very effective at horrifying me, I’m more than willing to pay it, even on Halloween.