EDITOR’S NOTE: When I first took a look at this film on September 14, 2017, I didn’t seem to like it so much. Maybe I was having a bad day, as my thoughts have grown more rose-colored in the time that has passed.
If you’d like to see it for yourself, Arrow Video has released a UK blu ray of this film, which includes a 2K restoration of the movie, three sets of commentary (critics Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Josh Nelson; “Manglophiles” Matty Budrewicz and Dave Wain and co-writer Stephen David Brooks), Nature Builds No Machines (a brand new visual essay by Scout Tafoya, author of Cinemaphagy: the Films of Tobe Hooper, This Machine Just Called Me an Asshole! (a visual essay by author and critic Guy Adams on the monstrous life of inanimate objects in the work of Stephen King), an interview with star Robert Englund, behind the scenes footage and a trailer.
If you have an all region player, you can get this in the U.S. from Diabolik DVD.
What happens when you put together three of horror’s biggest stars — Robert Englund, Stephen King and Tobe Hooper? That’s the question posed by this film, based on a King/Harry Allan Towers short story that first appeared in the men’s magazine Cavalier before appearing in King’s 1978 collection Night Shift, which also spawned the movies Children of the Corn, Cat’s Eye, Maximum Overdrive, Graveyard Shift, The Lawnmower Man, Sometimes They Come Back, Trucks (yes, I know it’s the same story as Maximum Overdrive) and Battleground.
Bill Gartley (Robert England) owns the Blue Ribbon Laundry service, which is based around a laundry press that everyone calls The Mangler. His niece, Sherry cuts herself and gets blood all over the machine, which leads to the machine coming to life. It starts to eat anyone who gets too close to it, like Mrs. Frawley, by folding them just like a sheet.
Drunken police detective John Hunton (Ted Levine, Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs) and his ex-brother-in-law Mark — who just happens to study demonology — investigate the many deaths that follow. It turns out the Tha Mangler is how Gartley runs the town — when their virgin daughters turn 16, the town’s most powerful men and women sacrifice them to the machine. Sherry is next.
Sherry is next, but she helps the two men take out the demon — even if it kills Gartley, his lover Lin Sue and Stanner, the foreman. They throw holy water on it and the machine nearly beats them, but they succeed in taking it out. That is — until John talks about the antacids he’d been taking, which once belonged to the now dead Mrs. Frawley. One of the ingredients is deadly nightshade, also called “The Hand of Glory.”
Here’s where the movie descends into bullshittery. It only follows some of King’s story — which was a novella, so we can cut them some slack. It takes passages from Sir James George Frazier’s The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. But the “Hand of Glory” is usually the hand of a murderer who has been put to death or part of the root of the mandrake plant. That said — the endings of the book and movie are totally different, so I shouldn’t expect anyone to do actual research or make the occult make sense within their film.
The Mangler comes back to life, killing Mark and chasing John and Sherry. She tries to give herself to it to save him, but he stops her. They fall through a manhole cover and escape, with him taking her to the hospital, as he’s fallen in love.
Oh yeah — Mark is friends with an old photographer named J.J.J. Pictureman, who tells him the hidden history of the town before he dies. As John waits for news on Sherry’s condition, he gets a letter from the dead man. He warns him not to trust anyone in town with a missing body part, as they may have sacrificed it to the Mangler.
When John goes to see Sherry, flowers in hand, the machine is back in place and she has replaced her uncle, looking like a female version of him. She waves to him and he notices that her finger is missing. Throwing away the flowers, he leaves.
I worry that my description of this movie makes it sound better than it really is and that people will watch it. Hooper may not have even finished the film, as some say he was replaced by the producer, Anant Singh. It actually played in around 800 theaters, but was considered a failure. Hooper would go back to directing for TV after this.
When I first looked at this a few years ago, I looked down on it. Maybe it’s the years of worse movies in between or perhaps a reappraisal — more likely I miss the time when I could just go to the video store to rent stuff like this — but my memories of The Mangler have grown more fond since then.