'The Mangler' Revisited: Tobe Hooper, Stephen King and Robert Englund's Sinister Fairytale
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'The Mangler' Revisited: Tobe Hooper, Stephen King and Robert Englund's Sinister Fairytale

May 17, 2023




Stephen King's short story "The Mangler" really shouldn't work as well as it does. The fifth tale in his first collection, Night Shift, follows an industrial laundry press that somehow becomes possessed by a demon and begins flattening laundry workers like king-sized sheets. First published in a 1972 issue of Cavalier, the story contains the kind of grisly gore and fast scares that would keep readers turning the pages even when running alongside ads for edible panties and sex hotlines. With a gory premise and loose occult references, "The Mangler" may not be the most high-brow story King has ever published, but it is 19 pages of sheer horror perfection. Part urban legend, part splatterpunk lite, the story reads like a procedural cop drama from hell as Detective John Hunton (Ted Levine in the film) tries to stop a series of grisly deaths at the hands (er… gears) of a sinister machine. Tobe Hooper's adaptation of this gnarly story is its own curious beast. Despite boasting an impressive roster of horror icons, the strange film has been almost completely forgotten by genre fans and Constant Readers alike. Now nearly three decades old, perhaps it's time to rev up the engines and see if The Mangler's bite has grown stronger over the years or evaporated in a cloud of colorfully lit steam.

The ‘90s were a tricky time for Stephen King. The prolific author was nearing the peak of his experimental phase with a string of personal novels centering female characters interspersed with fascinating installments of his decade-spanning magnum opus The Dark Tower series. Cinematic entries proved to be a similarly mixed bag. Along with Oscar nominated adaptations of character-driven pieces like Misery and The Shawshank Redemption, the decade also saw more schlocky oddities like The Lawnmower Man, the criminally undervalued Needful Things, and Graveyard Shift, which still holds a rare 0% score on Rotten Tomatoes. Horror itself was caught in an uneasy transition between the slasher boom of the 1980s and the teen horror craze that would dominate the century's final years. The Mangler feels like the last of a dying breed. The narrative unfolds with kitschy B movie flare through a modern lens that catches every flaw. Despite this juxtaposition, the film itself is more fun than it should be, clinging to "so bad it's good" status by the skin of its teeth.

Working in the film's favor is an impressive pedigree of genre titans. In addition to King and Hooper, the film stars two iconic villains squaring off in the steamy laundry. Levine leads the cast as Detective Hunton, a jaded cop still mourning the death of his wife. Four years after his effective turn as Jame Gumb in the Oscar darling The Silence of the Lambs, Levine was no doubt hoping this role as the film's protagonist would keep the villainous typecasting at bay. Though Hunton is the ostensible hero, The Mangler is fronted by horror icon Robert Englund, fresh off of a dual role in New Nightmare, appearing both as himself and the knife-fingered boogeyman that made him famous. Combine the onscreen talent with the Master of Horror and the director of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and you’ve got the recipe for a nearly flawless film; on paper, that is.

Playing Monday morning quarterback with a horror movie rarely works out well for anyone. Still, it's tempting to think about what might have been. Aside from a clunky script that feels too big for the mostly unknown supporting cast, the film's most egregious sin lies in misuse of its two stars. Levine feels all wrong for the relatively sober role. He lumbers through the sets desperate to add personality to his bland character and the script practically bursts at the seams trying to contain his outsized persona. This frustration leads to frequent overacting and Levine chews through scenery like the Mangler chews up women. Joining him in this bizarre investigation is paranormal expert Mark Jackson (Daniel Matmor), an erudite academic convinced the machine is haunted by more than just faulty wiring. As Huntley's brother-in-law, he joins the investigation out of sheer curiosity. Levine drags him through the scenes and the two men develop a slapstick chemistry that often undercuts the story's grisly horror.

If Levine chews scenery, Englund bites it off in T-Rex sized chunks and swallows it whole. As the sinister Mr. Gartley, he's once again buried under heavy makeup and wears gleaming metal braces on his legs for reasons that are never explained. Englund seems to be having a ball, twisting his metaphorical mustache as a cartoonishly evil villain. When victims fall into the Mangler, he shouts his approval while dancing with joy on a balcony in the dismal factory. This character, an addition to King's text, is arguably the film's biggest misfire and an unnecessary attempt to birth another horror icon. After eleven years, seven films, and a TV show, Englund had already created one of the most recognizable characters in cinematic history; a household name for horror fans and general audiences alike. Perhaps a better use of the charming actor's talents would be in the lead role as a world-weary investigator. With Englund as the film's hero, Levine would be a fascinating Mark Jackson and casting the brash actor as an occult specialist would allow Hooper to play up the sinister sparkle that constantly dances in Levine's icy blue eyes.

But that's not the film we have, and Hooper's vision is far from a dud. The Mangler is packed with spooky imagery and the legendary director makes a meal out of every moment. Primary colors and looming shadows abound and every set piece is calibrated for maximum horror from the quaint cemetery Hunton passes on his drive to the laundry to Jackson's magically lit backyard garden and Gartley's baroque office filled with taxidermy and a bathroom so cavernous it contains a clawfoot tub. Never mind that this ornate suite of rooms exists on the top floor of an industrial laundry plant. The tub's placement makes about as much sense as the shelf full of creepy dolls in Gartley's house. The Blue Ribbon's factory floor is filled with so much steam that it could moonlight as a bathhouse and Jackson's own study is bursting with occult oddities and ancient tomes. The Mangler itself is gothic perfection, with giant gears, gnashing bars, and a puckered iron body that looks like scaly skin. Emblazoned on its face is the brand Hadley Watson 6, another fun bit of evil numerology.

The film feels like the bastard child of its two legendary creators. Though King's involvement ended with the source material, the essence of his early fiction can be felt in every scene. Set in a quaint Maine town, goofy locals fill out the background fretting over lost children and fumbling with an ancient icebox that later turns out to be haunted. Other references include a sinister father sacrificing his daughter to a demonic machine (Christine), a climactic showdown in the sewers (It), and the ominous amputation of a finger indicating enrollment in a devious club ("Quitters, Inc."). Hooper's DNA also abounds with dimly lit primary colors, sets cluttered with obscure objects of death, and a tracking shot in which the Blue Ribbon Laundry looms over a protagonist as he walks into the lion's den.

The Mangler may be most successful when viewed as a horrific fairy tale. Instead of a mystifying factory overlord, Gartley becomes a nefarious Rumplestiltskin. The Mangler becomes a fire-breathing dragon, and Lin Sue (Lisa Morris) an evil stepmother in the making. Jeremy Crutchley's aptly named J.J.J. Pictureman (he takes pictures) serves as a harbinger or prophet, appearing whenever Hunton needs a reminder of his life's true purpose. Jackson becomes a wizard pouring over deep stacks of occult reference books and Hunton a twisted version of the dashing prince trying in vain to save a damsel in distress. When viewed in these stark terms, the film becomes much more enjoyable. We stop trying to make sense of the chaos and let ourselves enjoy the looming shadows and overwrought archetypes.

The Mangler is not exactly a good film. Over-the-top performances and a clunky script make it nearly impossible to take anything in the 126 minute runtime seriously. But it is a fun film. Ted Levine's overacting leads to unintentional moments of joy like when he takes a sledgehammer and beats the sinister icebox to smithereens. A later scene has him standing on the mouth of the Mangler and shooting into the machine's jaws hoping to free his trenchcoat with bullet holes. Robert Englund's character has not aged particularly well, but it is fun to watch him cut loose in what feels like a zero-stakes joy ride. The climactic sequence in which he's folded into a tiny, screaming square by the Mangler's steaming panels plays out like the cinematic equivalent of burning your action figures with a sunlit magnifying glass. Other effects are similarly goofy, but after a while the film's commitment to itself begins to win out, folding us into the insanity like a maniacal machine smoothing out the kinks.

The Mangler is now streaming on SCREAMBOX!

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Maybe more than any other character in the pantheon of horror villain legends, Freddy Krueger was custom built to put the fear of god into us. Nothing about his presence was thrown together haphazardly. Instead, nearly every aspect of his design had a tremendous amount of thought put into it. From makeup effects great David B. Miller's inspired work creating the Krueger's crispy kisser, to the subliminal mind games played by creator Wes Craven when choosing certain aspects of his look (the razor glove was meant to resemble the clawed paws of a prehistoric predator while the colors of his sweater were chosen due to the difficult time the human eye has processing red and green together), we were meant to feel Freddy's menace on a subatomic level.

As the franchise rolled on over the years, that visual blueprint was more or less stuck to religiously. After all, why mess with a good thing? But that's not to say that all the Krueger designs were created equally. While each has its own distinct charm and represents where the character was at in that point in its history, some stand out more than others.

For #RobertEnglundDay, here are my own painfully nerdy thoughts on Freddy's style in each of his cinematic excursions and how they rank in this writer's heart of hearts.

9 – The Dream Child (1989)

Freddy Krueger's design in The Dream Child is representative of the franchise's fifth entry in general, in that it is very much a mixed bag of a picture. Original makeup guru David B. Miller was brought in to create a new Freddy prosthetic that would take less time to apply to series star Robert Englund, but the end result was a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde affair. At times, the makeup looks fine despite having a noticeably cheaper aura about it, but there are moments where Freddy looks less like a horrifying burnt-up boogeyman and more like a dude in a rubber mask. While his business attire might have left something to be desired, we do get to see Krueger cosplay as a superhero AND a maître-d’. This might not have sparked nightmares for its audience, but it certainly made for some wonderful action figures years later.

8 – A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

Some might think its sacrilege to include the failed reboot of the Nightmare franchise on this list. However, whatever led to the film failing, its rendering of Freddy wasn't one of them. Jackie Earle Haley's performance is a highlight of the film and his Krueger's appearance wasn't the abomination some have made it out to be. The costume design was pretty darn close to what we saw in the original (right down to the sweater being knit by the same woman who made it back in 1984) but it was Freddy's face where a new direction was taken. The makeup's success is varied, depending really on which scene you’re watching. Sometimes, it looks genuinely disturbing, featuring details (like the addition of a blind, milky white eye) that make this Krueger a beast all its own. Unfortunately, the movie's blending together prosthetics and CGI wasn't entirely seamless, and that distraction does a huge disservice to the character. Overall, it was a valiant effort that was bogged down by technological limitations and overshadowed by the incredible work that came before it.

7 – New Nightmare (1994)

When Wes Craven returned to Elm Street for this proto-meta reimagining of the Freddy mythology, efforts were made to make the character scary again. His trademark sweater, hat, and scorched skin were all kept, but additions were made to his appearance that made him unlike any other version we’d seen before. Since now he was an avatar for an ageless evil entity rather than a short pervert with a penchant for one-liners, some physical alterations needed to take place. The character's physique was pumped up, a pair of combat boots were popped on his tootsies to add some inches to his height, and his facial features were given a structure that made him look more monstrous. Coupled with this was the switching out of Krueger's homemade mitt with a weird bio-mechanical claw that would have looked at home in Tetsuo: The Iron Man. These aspects of the redesign worked to varying degrees in terms of making the man of our dreams spooky again, but there was one that cannot be forgiven: they gave Freddy a duster. Very few people can pull off this polarizing piece of clothing. You either look cool as hell (see: Brandon Lee in The Crow) or painfully lame (think Mac in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia). Turning Krueger into a demonic beefcake metal fetishist was all well and good, but there are some lines that should never be crossed.

6 – Freddy's Dead (1991)

On the surface, Mr. Krueger's appearance in this contentious chapter of the Nightmare franchise seems like a disaster (I once heard someone wonder aloud whether they had rented his mask and clothing from a local costume store) but in the context of Freddy's Dead and what director Rachal Talalay was going for, it's a homerun. This is Elm Street by way of John Waters (many of the film's crew- including Talalay herself – had worked with the Prince of Puke in the past) so it only made sense that Freddy's design would need to reflect the film's embrace of camp. And it made sense: by this point, thanks to the success of the sequels and a massive amount of merchandising, the character had permeated the pop culture zeitgeist completely. Krueger was now less a boogeyman and more a brand name, so the fact that he had a glossy, almost mass-produced look to him not only fit the tone of the film but felt like a commentary on the transformation the character had gone through during its existence. It might not have been scary, but damn if it didn't work.

5 – Freddy vs. Jason (2003)

If you do an image search for some of the early Freddy vs Jason makeup tests, you’ll see that Krueger could have looked disastrously different from what we eventually saw when this long-gestating dream project finally hit the big screen. Thankfully, what fans got instead was a solid design that was reminiscent of his look during his 87-88 heyday. This was a welcomed return for those who weren't thrilled with the revisions made in New Nightmare, and it made for a nice cinematic send-off for Robert Englund (he’d go on to appear onscreen in full Freddy garb one last time in a 2018 episode of The Goldbergs, but this film feels more like his true swan song as the character). While it doesn't bring anything to the table that distinguishes it from other installments, this was a more than serviceable take on the Springwood Slasher.

4 – A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

The "O.G." It's no wonder Freddy Krueger struck such a chord with so many people in this first outing. Combined with Robert Englund's meticulously intentional physicality is a look that's instantly iconic. Parts of Freddy's character design are admittedly rough around the edges at this point. His sweater is just a tad baggy and the style of his hat appears to change at times (there's a couple of shots where Krueger looks to be wearing a pork pie hat, as if he's some sort of deranged Buster Keaton), but these elements would be nailed down in future installments. His burn makeup might be the grossest it's ever been. Krueger's face in his debut is disgustingly craterous in a way not seen in future sequels, as if large chunks of flesh were torn from his flaming visage upon his death. His style might have been perfected later on, but this was still a hell of an entrance.

3 – Freddy's Revenge (1985)

A year after the success of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Freddy Krueger was resurrected for the first time. However, this installment would see his design handled by some new blood as David B. Miller passed the baton to up-and-coming special makeup effects artist Kevin Yagher. Just as the sequel went in a different (and divisive) direction from the original, Yagher decided to make some changes of his own. A more pronounced bone structure was introduced: while Krueger's flesh appeared to be hanging from his face in the first film, this version's was stretched taught across his skull. High, jagged cheekbones and unnervingly sunken eyes were the result. A hooked, almost witch-like nose was also added, and the combination of it all made this Freddy uniquely terrifying in his own right. His clothing was further refined as well, with his sweater now being a bit more form fitting and frayed. While not without its missteps (the addition of demonic red contact lenses would be axed in later films), this Krueger was not only frightening but a big step forward towards the character's final form.

2 & 1 – Dream Warriors (1987) & The Dream Master (1988)

‘Dream Warriors’

Freddy at his fiercest. After a two-year hiatus, Krueger graced our dreams once more in a pair of stellar pictures that represent the high-water mark for sequels in the Nightmare franchise.

Both featured Kevin Yagher on makeup duty and his work in these films is iconic, blending together the best elements of the ideas he brought to Freddy's Revenge (skeletal bone structure, witchy nose) with the stomach-turning textures of David B. Miller's original burn makeup. Krueger's iconic sweater was similarly on point, displaying a lived-in rattiness that gave it just the right amount of believability, and his claw was spot on. What's more, these movies featured the first instance of the Springwood Slasher playing dress up (you gotta love part three's Tuxedo Freddy) and accessorizing (those shades in part four are absolutely scorching). Top marks, all around.

Peel back the makeup and celebrate Robert Englund with SCREAMBOX Original documentary Hollywood Dreams & Nightmares: The Robert Englund Story, streaming now.

‘The Dream Master’

Stephen King's "The Mangler" Ted Levine Tobe Hooper's Daniel Matmor Lisa Morris Jeremy Crutchley's The Mangler is now streaming on SCREAMBOX! Freddy Krueger #RobertEnglundDay 9 – The Dream Child (1989) 8 – A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) 7 – New Nightmare (1994) 6 – Freddy's Dead (1991) 5 – Freddy vs. Jason (2003) 4 – A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) 3 – Freddy's Revenge (1985) 2 & 1 – Dream Warriors (1987) & The Dream Master (1988) SCREAMBOX Hollywood Dreams & Nightmares: The Robert Englund Story