Director Tobe Hooper comes from a generation of genre filmmakers commonly referred to as the Masters of Horror. His name is often listed alongside his peers Wes Craven, John Carpenter, George Romero, Joe Dante, and John Landis as one of the most significant of all horror directors. The horror community will forever be in his debt for the contributions he’s made to our fears. In the 1970s, Hooper made THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, one of the most disturbing films of all time, and one that still has every bot of its raw power today. In the 1980s, he made POLTERGEIST, a film that traumatized a generation, as well as the sexy space vampire epic, LIFEFORCE, and notable remakes of THE BLOB and INVADERS FROM MARS.
It’s hard to say what happened to Tobe Hooper since THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2, but he seems to have fallen out of favor with mainstream audiences. Perhaps horror had mutated past his sensibilities. Perhaps his aesthetic was simply no longer appreciated. But whatever the reason, Hooper’s films began to decline in popularity in 1990. Many horror fans have observed this phenomenon happen to most of the so-called Masters of Horror, and all of the filmmakers listed above have sunk distressingly into unpopularity as time has passed. They are still loved for their classics, of course, but few went to see the newest works from Craven, Carpenter, Romero, Landis, or Dante. Can you even name all of their most recent films?
I don’t know what happened to Hooper, his career, or his streak of good luck, but people simply stopped seeing his films in as large numbers, and his newer work was never was widely celebrated as his early work. Many have seen THE FUNHOUSE, for instance, but fewer have seen his 1999 film THE APARTMENT COMPLEX. Or his CROCODILE. Or his remake of THE TOOLBOX MURDERS. Or his most recent film, 2013’s DJINN. And those who have seen it, tend to lambaste Tobe Hooper’s 1995 horror freakout THE MANGLER.
THE MANGLER, in case you haven’t heard about it, is a film about a mechanical industrial-sized laundry press that becomes possessed by a demon and begins eating people alive. A dumb premise? Oh, you bet. Who would want to see a film about a killer laundry press? But Hooper, ever ambitious, made what may amount to be — if not one of the better horror films — at least one of the more interesting and creative horror films of the 1990s. The time has come to rush to its defense.
Following the slasher boom of the 1980s, but before the slasher revival that started with Wes Craven’s SCREAM, horror was going through a bizarre phase where no trends dominated, and no formulas seemed to be working. 1987 up until 1996 saw a sudden market saturation of mind-bending, weird, and near-experimental horror movies to come out of studios. Slasher heroes were dying out in totally bonkers cartoon spectacles (as in FREDDY’S DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE), and nothing was stepping in to take their place, gifting the world with winky horror comedies like ARMY OF DARKNESS, ambitious fantasies like NIGHT BREED, or conceptual horror films like IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS.
It was into this milieu that THE MANGLER appeared. Based on a story by Stephen King, THE MANGLER took place in a world that may have been the modern day, but could just as easily have been the 1940s. It was frozen in time, the world being wholly imaginary from the ground up. In this world, an evil laundry magnate (!) played by a latex-coated Robert Englund ran a corrupt laundry-for-hire business, mostly centered around a gigantic iron machine that would suck up sheets, wash them, and fold them. From time to time, the machine would also suck up body parts belonging to the impoverished workforce.
The machine itself — the title Mangler — is a large, strange, spooky creation. About the size of a school bus, spewing wet steam, and coated in a rusty patina of grossness, the Mangler is the kind of large groaning machine that you always imagined your parents worked with when you were a small child. It has a large, thorax-like chamber wherein ineffable things happen. It moans like the damned. When considered from a design perspective, it’s a pretty awesome machine. Eventually, the Mangler will come to life, and start crawling around the hallways, chasing after the film’s heroes — which is, one must admit, effing ridiculous — but until then, the machine is actually kind of spooky.
Of course, a stationary monster is easy to avoid: Just don’t go near that machine and you should be good, right? THE MANGLER wisely manufactures an important thematic reason for people to keep returning to the machine: They need work. Although the film was made long before the inception of Occupy Wall Street, THE MANGLER is very much about class warfare and the exploitation of the working classes. The Mangler itself may be seen to represent any wage slavery job. We know that this machine is hungry and wants to kill us. We know that the economic system is only looking for human meat to feast upon. But we have to keep returning to the beast because, hey, we need that paycheck. THE MANGLER offers a salient comment on the very nature of wage slavery. That the victims are all women adds an additional layer of commentary.
Additionally, the Englund character — and his subsequent heiress — both have to feed parts of themselves into the machine to keep it running. They, however, gain the most benefit, running the laundry themselves and reading the money. But, despite their relative wealth, these two are not titans of industry. They are monsters fighting over small pieces of an enormous economic pie. They are slightly bigger fish in a dirty sump. Tobe Hooper, with these themes of petty, overbearing corporate bully-hood was either referencing the works of Franz Kafka, or was, perhaps more accurately, evoking Émile Zola’s GERMINAL, a book about coal miners who starve, rape the land, and lose their souls, all to stave off starvation with a meager paycheck.
Now imagine if GERMINAL also included Sam Spade and Sam Spade’s nerdy sidekick. The main character of THE MANGLER is a police detective played by Ted Levine, and his sidekick is an awkward nerdy guy played by Daniel Matmor. Over the course of the film, they discover that the deaths at the laundry plant were arranged, and that the Mangler is indeed haunted by a demon. Demons, but the way, are embodied by electricity, and can take possession of household appliances; Levine and Matamor spend one scene beating up a possessed refrigerator. The film, then, is staged like a haunted house noir film with a really, really bonkers protagonist.
The cement the noir tone is an alternate-universe character named J.J.J. Pictureman, played by Jeremy Crutchley. Pictureman stalks about the film’s various scenes of grisly death, taking pictures with his outdated camera, disposing of flashbulbs like a mortician version of Weegee. He wears a black cloak and resembles a lost horror host. He’s a character escaped from an EC noir comic from the 1950s. That he feels displaced in time, is most certainly a deliberate aesthetic choice on Hooper’s part; his film is no conventional horror tale, but an ambitious artistic exercise. Stephen King has always been fond of the 1950s horror comics and pulp literature, which can be seen in his involvement in CREEPSHOW, and elements of that pulpiness come through most strongly in the Pictureman character.
So what we have in THE MANGLER is something that folds together the grit of Zola, the glorious schlock of 1950s pulp, the weird antihero darkness of classic noir, and a salient message of economic hardship for the modern day. All told in a weird, weird, weird monster movie about a killer laundry press. The movie is strange enough to be nightmarish, and nightmarish enough to be actually, fitfully, scary.
THE MANGLER is, one must admit, perhaps a little too strange to be regarded as a legitimate horror classic, and many horror fans still can’t get around the notion of a stationary monster machine — seriously, just don’t go in that room — but it is most certainly more complex, interesting, and intriguing than its reputation may have one believe. At the very least, the time has come for revisitation and reconsideration.