Only horror fans are likely to be impressed with 'The Mangler'

March 07, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Give it to "The Mangler": It's the first movie I ever saw set in a laundry.

The laundry in question is located in Maine, and if it's Maine, it must be Stephen King, right? Right. Derived from a King short story and directed by the Tobe Hooper who so memorably guided both "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "Poltergeist" toward completion, it also stars the Robert Englund of the Elm Street films -- he was no less than Freddy Krueger himself. The other star is Ted Levine, who played "Buffalo Bill," the serial killer in "Silence of the Lambs."

That's a great pedigree, at least for a horror movie, and the film for the most part offers what such a list might suggest: solid, well-crafted professional scares, lots of gore and an overall aura of menace.

If this isn't your kind of movie, then believe me, this isn't your kind of movie. Horror fans may enjoy, as I did, the novelty of the situation. "The Mangler" itself turns out to be an ancient, clanking beast of a machine, a steam-driven infernal device with gears, chain belts and pressing plates, about 20 feet tall and 60 feet long, sitting in the middle of a hellish, steam-dense laundry plant. It looks like it belongs in the Kruppworks, grinding out 140mm howitzers for the Kaiser. Instead it presses and folds sheets and an occasional worker.

The movie opens with such an accident, quite a harrowing viewing experience, particularly as it seems to mock the wondrously comic way another machine once sucked up Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp in "Modern Times." That machine spit Chaplin out intact; the Mangler spits poor Mrs. Frawley out in such a condition that a stretcher won't do to remove the remains: A basket is necessary.

Levine is the local officer who investigates, but he understands quickly enough that nearly everybody in the town profits from the laundry works, and so nobody is in a hurry to close it down.

The film recycles a familiar King theme, the animation of inanimate objects for malicious purposes, but there's a slight difference here -- at least it isn't arbitrary. Underneath all the clanking and grinding, there's an allusion to the harvest festivals of druidic times, when virgins were sacrificed for the good of the crop. (Anybody remember Shirley Jackson's great story "The Lottery"? Same idea.) In this film, it's not for the good of the green crops but the white sheets.

Englund, as the laundry owner who himself has had a brush with the Mangler's gears and wears legbraces to show for it, overacts as usual, but that's to be expected. The weak link is Levine, whose ravings, self-pity/loathing and anguish grow quickly tiresome. He carries on like he thinks this is his big breakthrough. Hel-lo. Earth to Ted: Nobody gets Oscar nods for films titled "The Mangler."

The movie also goes a little cuckoo at the end. It's one thing to have the Mangler eat the occasional sloppy employee or reluctant sacrificee, but quite another to have it get up on all fours and start cavorting about like a puppy in the sun. It trips the lights fantastic on the sidewalks of Rykers Valley, Maine. Really.

MOVIE REVIEW

"The Mangler"

Starring Ted Levine and Robert Englund

Directed by Tobe Hooper

Released by New Line

Rated R (extreme violence)

** 1/2

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