Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Mangler

There are two types of narratives and two types of tones The Mangler (1995), an adaptation of a Stephen King short story that appeared in his Night Shift collection, could have adopted. Like the source material, it could have been presented as a straightforward police procedural, the story of a cop investigating a series of mysterious deaths at an industrial laundry who finds a demonic influence on the case (think Angel Heart), or it could have played up the Faustian elements of the material and made it a sort of Gothic, gorified Little Shop of Horrors. Either treatment could have been played for grim, droll, dark thrills or campy, over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek splatter comedy. Unfortunately, director Tobe Hooper, best known for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist, tries to include everything, and the result is every intended effect is negated. 

Officer John Hunton (Ted Levine) investigates when an elderly worker at the Blue Ribbon Laundry is killed after she's pulled into an industrial laundry press machine, nicknamed "The Mangler." The ancient machine is clearly not in shape to be operating, but the laundry's owner Bill Gartley (Robert Englund under poundage of rather unconvincing old-age makeup) has power and influence over the town and keeps the Mangler running. Hunton discusses the case with his brother-in-law Mark Jackson (Daniel Matmor), a college professor who specializes in the paranormal. Jackson is convinced the machine is possessed by a demon, but Hutton remains skeptical until he uncovers a conspiracy involving the town's history of missing daughters.

Let me emphasize the movie's monster in case you glanced over it, or it just didn't register.  An industrial laundry press machine possessed by a demon. And it eats the workers. I'm not sure which is the bigger challenge for the filmmakers: how ludicrous the situation is or trying to present for an entire feature film. King's story, while certainly not his best work, is engaging and pretty creepy. Less than 20 pages long, it's follows Hunton on his investigation as he pieces all the clues together until he must accept the impossible. King doesn't linger on the gore, instead using chilling descriptions and reactions by the characters to convey how monstrous the machine is and how horrible the deaths must have been. He even manages to give the Mangler itself something of a personality; at times, it seems to taunt the pitiful humans who inspect it.

The movie retains this central narrative but gives increased emphasis on Gartley, a figure only mentioned in passing in the short story. Here, we learn Gartley has some kind of deal with the devil, sacrificing blood of the town's virgins (I kid you not) to the demon in the Mangler in exchange for wealth and power (but apparently not eternal youth). In the story, the possession occurred more or less randomly, with different ingredients for a spell having fallen in the machine over the years being enough to summon a demon. Hence, when a woman is killed, it's a big deal; the demon has arrived. In the movie. Gartley has been feeding the machine virgins for years, and now the police are investigating?

I'd like to be more forgiving for this sort of lack of logic. After all, in Texas Chainsaw, nothing is really explained; the teenagers just sort of stumble into this horrific, surreal situation that kills them one by one in a random, haphazard manner. But the world presented in Chainsaw felt real, plausible, and gritty. It was famously filmed in a way that made it look like a documentary; the killings were all the more disturbing because they took place off screen.

The setting of The Mangler, the Maine town of Riker's Valley, never feels real. In my review of Troll 2,  I mentioned Rob Zombie's description of the Chainsaw actors: "these crazy people sure can act." They seemed like real people in Hooper's masterpiece, but in The Mangler, arguably Hooper's nadir, the characters just seem like bad actors. Accents are all over the place, dubbing is quite obvious, and delivery feels off. The narrative feels like it takes place over the course of one day and night, but it feels so sloppy, and events feel thrown together without context. logic, or conviction. Hooper films the movie in an exaggerated, almost comic-book style - a lot  of wide angles, flashing lights, and low-angles (he's certainly trying) - but it just makes it come off as hokey.

The gore is plentiful and disgusting, but that's about it. It's not really scary. Hooper (who co-wrote the screenplay with two others) also fails to make the demonic aspect believable. It's introduced and accepted so quickly, the audience doesn't have time to buy. Like many aspects of the film, it just feels thrown in. Instead of building to the final exorcism, the movie has to kill a lot of time without much going on. At one point, Hunton and Jackson duke it out with an icebox that has become possessed as a result of coming into contact with the machine. The icebox was a throwaway reference in the story when the characters discuss other possessions they've heard of; by actually working it in, the filmmakers come off as clueless.

The Mangler is not without some interest. Hooper has always been fascinated by the corrupting influence of industrial capitalism, and that's represented here by the robber baron Gartley. An old man artificially kept alive way past his expiration date, lumbering around on twin leg braces and with a bad eye and a tracheotomy, he wheezes, "There's a a little bit of me in that machine and a little bit of it in me." For power, he sacrifices all: health, family, employees, soul. Riker's Valley, we're told (though not shown), is an idyllic town, but beneath the surface, there's deep-seated rot and depravity. Man and machine can be a two-headed monster.

The machine itself is impressive, a massive, imposing, and dangerous contraption that looks like it belongs in something Charles Dickens would dream up. The atmosphere of the factory is dank and oppressive, full sweat, steam, grime, and misery. Hooper creates a peculiar style and energy to the movie, and he seems to appreciate some of the story's inherent absurdities. The movie is filled with anachronisms: flash-bulb photographers, ice boxes, industrial laundries, etc. Perhaps if this had been a period movie, focusing on an employee caught between poverty and working in proximity to a demonic machine and master, it might have been able to work on a serious level. Or keep the detective angle, drop the conspiracy aspect, and it might have worked as a straight-up adaptation for Tales from the Crypt.

The Mangler is absurd yet dreary, made with equal parts skill and incompetence, ridiculous as it repulsive. I get a sense of what Hooper was going for, and I admire that, but the movie gets bogged down in too many nonsensical distractions, the script lacks a clear focus, and the reality of the movie is never firmly established or convincing.  Send this one to the cleaners.

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