As he waits for Scream Factory’s swanky new Blu-ray release to show up, Matty kicks back and extols the virtues of Tobe Hooper’s much-maligned schlocker. 

On Tuesday 11th December, Tobe Hooper’s THE MANGLER (1995) landed on Blu-ray from Scream Factory.

Now, to be clear, this isn’t a review of Scream Factory’s disc. I’m still waiting for my copy to arrive which, given Royal Mail’s pre-Christmas backlog, probably won’t be until next June. This long, freewheeling ramble is somewhere between a paean and a rallying cry.

Indulge me.

Snagged as part of the label’s deal with Warner Bros., Hooper’s Stephen King-based schlocker originally hit Stateside screens via Warner subsidiary, New Line. At the time, New Line also held the rights for Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), and had recently experienced moderate financial success with another King-rooted property, The Lawnmower Man (1992). King’s lawsuit against the studio notwithstanding (the master of literary horror took umbrage with the them using his name to tout The Lawnmower Man, which, besides the title, bore little resemblance to King’s short story), New Line were presumably hoping that The Mangler would be another minor smash; a sleeper powered by Hooper’s legacy, the King brand, and the presence of star Robert Englund, who’d previously lined the company’s pockets as the face of their lucrative A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. All three were vital to The Mangler’s promotion, its trailers and posters slathered with their insignia.

The House That Freddy Built’ must’ve been stunned, then, when Hooper’s second stab at King (after Salem’s Lot (1979)), and fourth team-up with Englund (following Eaten Alive (1976), the revisionist pilot episode of Freddy’s Nightmares: A Nightmare on Elm Street – The Series, and The Mangler’s unofficial companion piece, Night Terrors (1993)[1]) played to a paltry nineteen people nationwide on its opening night.

And they must’ve been livid when the rest of the film’s US theatrical run proved as equally lousy.

All in all, Hooper’s crackpot romp scraped in a dire $1.7million at the American box office. Here in the UK, it wasn’t much better. The film unspooled in nary a handful of city cinemas before swiftly slinking into VHS oblivion. A laserdisc and a couple of DVDs aside, that’s where The Mangler’s stayed on either side of the Atlantic, surfacing only for the occasional cable and satellite TV showing and intermittent appearances on streaming platforms.

For getting this outrageous treat back in circulation – in what sounds like an extras-heavy edition – Scream Factory should be applauded. They do the Lord’s work as is, and this final stretch of the year has already been peppered with a stunning spread of goodies from them. A new, readily available disc of The Mangler, however, is something very special.

For one, from early reviews it sounds like Hooper’s visually impressive flick has finally been afforded the overhaul it deserves with Scream Factory’s new 4K scan. An opulent feast for the peepers, The Mangler‘s industrial gothic sheen has been poorly served by a lifetime of murky presentations on other home media.

More than anything, though, a new, readily available disc gives the film chance for a much needed reassessment.

Because if ever a movie warranted – demanded – reappraisal, it’s The Mangler.

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REASSESSIN’ THE LAUNDRY PRESSIN’

Box office does not a good film indicate.

Nor do negative reviews.

We know that, right?

Throughout horror history, countless movies have flopped financially but soared with critics and vice versa. Some have even suffered the ignominy of tanking with audiences and press alike, only to find a more appreciative gaggle of champions further down the road.

Not so The Mangler.

As well as failing to get bums on seats at the cinema (it peaked at 17th place on opening night), The Mangler was also mauled critically. David Kronke of the Los Angeles Times, for instance, called it a “glum, lacklustre affair”, while Bill Hoffman of the New York Post curtly described it as “a mess”. Worse still is the film’s status among the majority of those who’ve stumbled across it.

To say The Mangler is hated would be a gross understatement.

It’s despised.

Since its first showing in March 1995, The Mangler has been subject to the utmost contempt. Frequently scoffed at and ridiculed, it’s a regular on worst of lists and bad movie compendiums on YouTube. It spent an inordinate chunk of the ‘00s drifting around IMDb’s ‘Bottom 250’, and is continually cited as a catastrophic misfire that all but killed big screen King adaptations until last year’s King-naissance (in fairness, from a strictly monetary perspective, it certainly didn’t help; quality-wise, it’s light-years ahead of the abysmal Needful Things (1993)). The tweets and comments on Scream Factory’s Twitter and Facebook announcements for The Mangler spoke volumes: the bulk of them were laden with disbelief and “this movie sucks”-type proclamations.

Yet when I watch The Mangler, I see a wonderfully entertaining genre pic, bursting with ideas and technical swagger. It’s an unfairly maligned symphony of ghoulish fun sprinkled with social commentary and a firm sense of self-awareness.

Mercifully, there seems to be a tiny group of people who feel the same; a pint-sized cabal of like-minded individuals as captivated by the film’s deranged charm as I am.

We exist.

So why don’t we, as ardent Manglophiles – or Manglees or Mang-Heads – whatever you want to call us – really start banging the drum for this one?

Why don’t we join forces and shout our love for it from every literal and figurative rooftop until everyone else has no choice but to accept The Mangler as the glorious whirlpool of cinematic delirium it so clearly is?

Between us we have the power to orchestrate the same kind of overhaul that transformed Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) from red-headed stepchild to cherished cult darling.

For those not au fait with The Mangler‘s exquisite charm – or, hopefully, for those now keen to get reacquainted with it – Halloween III is the ideal touchstone. Not only did Season of the Witch’s reputation finally solidify once Scream Factory slapped it on Blu, as The Mangler’s should, but both it and The Mangler occupy a similar space thematically. Like Tommy Lee Wallace’s once derided sequel, The Mangler boasts a stirring anti-capitalist stance, throwing punches at how businesses use and abuse for their own nefarious gain. Whereas Season of the Witch had Daniel O’Herlihy and the dastardly Silver Shamrock, Hooper hones in on Englund and his Kafka-esque Blue Ribbon Laundry Service. Englund is the plant’s repulsive owner, Bill Gartley. A cigar chompin’, leg brace-wearing, evil son-of-bitch, Gartley is sacrificing virginal maidens to the titular demonic laundry press in order to keep the wealthier denizens of the creepy Riker’s Valley, Maine in their finery. A character mentioned in passing in King’s short story, the fleshed-out film Gartley is avarice personified: he’s a rotten, greedy auld bastard and he’s literally feeding the machine.

Performance-wise, Gartley is a berserk turn from the fright-con. Inspired by Everett Sloane’s polio-addled Arthur Bannister in The Lady from Shanghai (1947), Englund’s take on the twisted cleaning tycoon is, according to long-time Hooper disciple Eric Lasher [2], also a caricature of the helmer’s own grizzly quirkiness. And as in Englund and Hooper’s preceding pair up, Night Terrors, whereupon the director seemingly encouraged the classically trained thesp to ham for all he’s worth as the Marquis De Sade, Englund chews The Mangler’s scenery with gleeful abandon, almost unpalatably so. Clad in heavy old age makeup [3], hobbling around, flailing his crutches, barking at his weary workforce… It’s jarring until you realise the star’s cantankerous histrionics are key to understanding the film’s absurdities. If you can handle Englund’s brain-melting theatricality, the rest of The Mangler’s warped pageantry makes perfect sense.

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Indeed, of the criticisms levelled at The Mangler the two most frequently cited are integral to its genetics, and can be allayed by one’s willingness to buy into the picture’s unique craziness. First, objectors to Hooper’s demented gusto are missing the point. From the oppressive, hellish ambience of the Blue Ribbon factory, with its steel catwalks, sodden concrete floors, and steam-soaked air; to Englund and the rest of The Mangler‘s cast (which also includes Ted Levine as the weary ‘tec investigating Gartley’s shady activities) bellowing and gurning their way through reams of stupefying dialogue, the whole thing is meant to be over the top. The Mangler is the grind of blue collar existence amplified tenfold, the dissatisfaction of slaving away ‘roided to a morbidly cartoonish degree. A powerful and immersive viewing experience, it’s to Hooper’s credit that, when you allow yourself to be overcome by The Mangler‘s relentless, maniacal atmosphere, you genuinely feel like you’ve done a thirty-six hour shift in Gartley’s diabolical sweatshop yourself – in the best possible way, natch.

Second is the belief that such wilful lunacy is somehow at odds with those involved, that what’s on screen is not what you’d expect from the terror titans attached to it.

But what the hell did you expect?

Granted, it should be scarier. The Mangler isn’t scary or suspenseful in the slightest; I’ll concede to that. But an involving and entertaining horror movie doesn’t have to jolt the crap out of you or keep you on the edge of your seat. It’s welcome and preferable, yes, but some horror movies push other buttons, eliciting pleasure through their atmosphere and imagery; their pounding, throbbing energy; and their unashamed commitment to ladling on the gravy like a glutton at a carvery. The Mangler bashes all of them, resolutely in keeping with King, Englund, and Hooper’s intent and interpretation of the material.

To break it down:

As the world’s preeminent exponent of linguistic frissons, Stephen King’s writing runs the gamut. It can be classy, thought-provoking, and bone-freezing or tacky, throwaway, and ludicrous; sometimes all at once, sometimes somewhere in between. “I recognise terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorise the reader,” King stated in Danse Macabre (1981), his non-fiction mediation on horror in print and on screen. “But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud.”

The Mangler, which was originally published in the December 1972 issue of Cavalier (and later collected in King’s 1979 anthology, Night Shift, along with The Lawnmower Man and several other tales that’d eventually become movies like Trucks and Sometimes They Come Back), lands squarely in gross-out territory. It’s not an essential text by any means, but King’s short exudes a waggish sparkle and offers enough to noodle with; Hooper and his co-scripters, Stephen Brooks (who also supervised The Mangler‘s VFX), and The Mangler‘s producer, prolific B-movie maven Harry Alan Towers, who contributed to the screenplay pseudonymously [4], expanding upon the author’s gimmicky ‘possessed speed iron’ premise [5], seasoning the supernatural shenanigans with elements of conspiracy and pitch black humour.

As a filmmaker, Tobe Hooper is as concerned with the mythology and meaning of his stories as he is the amount of mayhem he can conjure. Hooper’s films simultaneously bubble with unhinged nuance and explode with graphic carnage. Invariably, the former is an off-kilter line or an oddball touch that teases a more expansive universe beyond what he immediately presents us with.

It’s the fleet of ransacked cars hidden under a camo net in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. 

It’s Neville Brand’s wooden leg in Eaten Alive. 

The hints of earlier murders in The Funhouse (1981). 

The jewellery of the dead falling through the Freelings’ ceiling in Poltergeist (1982).

In The Mangler it’s the missing digits of the townsfolk, and the suggestion that the bolted together Gartley is as much a piece of the eponymous hardware as its whirring gears and cogs.

The latter, well, c’mon: Hooper’s the guy who gave us the Sawyer family dinner party; space vampires destroying London; a burnt-to-a-crisp Brad Dourif synergising with a nuclear power station; and the residents of a labyrinthine Hollywood apartment building being slaughtered by an undead madman with a toolbox.

But irrespective of whether he’s implying something more sinister afoot or revelling in highly stylised scenes of dizzying chaos, it’s always been clear that Hooper loves excess. He delights in the outré. He relishes the kind of freakish pomp that, when footed in an already outlandish concept, and twinned with the flamboyant predilection of a wily trouper like Robert Englund (whose post-Freddy resume gives Lon Chaney a run for his money in the grotesque villain stakes) can only result in an offering as blissfully crackers as The Mangler. The way Hooper shoots the hulking mangler itself says it all. A mass of chains and cogs, and boasting a curiously inviting set of metallic jaws, Hooper photographs the steampunk behemoth with fetishistic fervour, rendering the giant water wringer as seductively monstrous as any other sexually charged beast from Dracula to the Xenomorph.

Ridiculous, oneiric, and striking:

The Mangler‘s exactly what it ought to be and it knows it.

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THE BIGGER PROBLEM

I have a theory.

It’s maybe a little paranoid but I’ve thought it for a while now and the Academy Awards back in January confirmed it, when Tobe Hooper’s passing last year was cruelly omitted from their In Memorium segment.

I think that The Mangler’s drubbing is endemic of a bigger problem:

The disrespect levelled at Hooper as an artist.

Whereas Hooper’s fellow fright luminaries George Romero, Wes Craven, and John Carpenter have a raft of recognised masterpieces under their belts, the general consensus is that Hooper was a one hit wonder whose career has been in free fall since The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

Bullshit, without question.

Any of Hooper’s immediate post Chain Saw offerings alone can stand proudly alongside the better regarded minor classics produced by Romero et al in the same late ‘70s, early ‘80s period. The gorgeous Salem’s Lot and The Funhouse (which, admittedly, are not without their fans) are as chilly and achingly magnificent as Big George’s Martin (1978) and Carpenter’s The Fog (1980); and for all its flaws, Eaten Alive occupies a beguiling space between the intense savagery of Craven’s Chain Saw-indebted The Hills Have Eyes (1977), and the eye-popping, EC stylistics of Romero’s Creepshow (1982).

The Oscar nominated Poltergeist, meanwhile, is monumental. It’s a singular spook-show as profoundly influential to the haunted house subgenre as Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Halloween (1978) were to zombies and slashers. Thing is, the authorship of those terrifying touchstones has never been brought into question.

Poltergeist’s has.

Hooper’s fingerprints are all over it structurally, aesthetically, and tonally but its majesty is continually attributed to its writer and producer, Steven Spielberg. Lore dictates that Hooper was less the deft creative eye and dramatist who whisked what was on the page to life [6] than Spielberg’s bumbling stooge; a front employed by the king of the blockbuster, who actually directed Poltergeist but was contractually unable to be credited for it.

That’s an article in and of itself [7] but, again, I’d curtly sum up the entire “Poltergeist is a Spielberg film” debacle as bullshit. Alas, the damage this barrage of bollocks had on Hooper’s career is irrevocable. Prior to Poltergeist, the sorely missed virtuoso had already walked from Eaten Alive, and had been removed from dud sci-fi thriller The Dark (1979) and snake-based suspenser Venom (1981) under suspicious circumstances; and the rumours spread by a small, disgruntled chunk of Poltergeist’s cast and crew paint him as a drug-frazzled hack – a contradiction that flies in the face of Hooper’s other go-to technicians and players who all repeatedly praise his laser focus. Still, mud sticks and lies and innuendo have undercut the bulk of the Dr. Pepper-swilling maverick’s work since, as evidenced by a handful of contemporary film writers who disparagingly refer to Hooper’s Cannon-backed treble, Lifeforce (1985), Invaders from Mars (1986), and Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986), as his ‘cocaine trilogy’.

Although it’s usually forgotten that the barnstorming Chainsaw 2 netted nearly double its $4.7million budget, the disdain that met Hooper’s Cannon triptych – as well as Lifeforce and Invaders from Mars’ poisonous financial returns – contributed significantly to Hooper’s consignment to the scrap heap, and proved eerily pre-emptive of the negativity that would greet almost every subsequent project. The biggest casualty of this endless ravaging is the cycle of Hooper flicks that The Mangler belongs to, a trilogy of deception and intrigue completed by Spontaneous Combustion (1990) and the obscenely underrated Night Terrors. Quite why they’re brutalised like they are I’ll never know. I’m not going to argue that everything Hooper did from Lifeforce onwards is a misunderstood sensation (the cumbersome Spontaneous Combustion, for example, is massively flawed, hampered by dunderheaded plotting and a glaringly half-finished feel), but each picture is worthy of significantly deeper discourse.

Don’t be fooled: They’re not the head-farting follies the majority would have you accept. They’re fascinating, distinguished jewels; glistening jewels that adorn the jauntily angled crown of horror cinema’s impish, unsung prince.

Thankfully, Lifeforce and TCM 2 have earned a modicum of retrospective plaudits over the last decade or so, largely because of their prestigious reissues from Scream Factory (and, Blighty-side, Arrow), which were lapped up by discerning genre connoisseurs and physical media nuts alike. And since The Mangler is as satirical, thematically nourishing, rapturously frenzied, and, I do declare, the better film, the Los Angeles label’s Blu-ray is the best chance it has to be hailed as the macabre joy it is.

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Footnotes

[1] Hooper and Englund would reunite for a fifth and final time on Dance of the Dead (2005), Hooper’s so-so contribution to the first season of Mick Garris’ landmark anthology show, Masters of Horror.

[2] As stated to author Stefan Jaworzyn in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre Companion.

[3] By fellow Elm Street alum David B. Miller, who designed and applied Freddy’s makeup in the first Nightmare, 1989’s ANOES 5: The Dream Child, Freddy’s Nightmares, and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994); and who executed similar latex-slinging jobs on Englund in Dance Macabre (1992) and Night Terrors.

[4] As ‘Peter Welbeck’, an alias he’d employ on a raft of other productions, most notably a slew of Jess Franco flicks: The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968), 99 Women (1969), The Girl From Rio (1969), Justine (1969), The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969), The Bloody Judge (1970), and Eugenie (1970).

[5] Which was presumably rooted in his own experience of working in an industrial laundry.

[6] From a script he helped develop no less. Hooper’s suburban ghost-train was born of his and The Beard’s mutual desire to make a picture akin to The Haunting (1963).

[7] And those wanting a primer on the subject need look no further than here: http://cranialblowout.blogspot.com/2018/03/everything-i-know-about-poltergeist.html

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