The centrepiece of the Gartley Laundry is the huge steam press the sheets are fed into to be flattened and folded, but today there is a nasty accident. As a refrigerator is being carried past it to the truck to take it away to its new owner, one of the workers, teenage Sherry (Vanessa Pike), snags her hand in the machine and cuts it, spraying blood which somehow creates arcs of electricity between that and the fridge. Sherry is fine apart from needing a bandaged hand, but later that day, her older mentor somehow manages to get her hand caught in the mangle, then her arm, then her entire body is dragged in to be crushed to death. This is a case for Det. John Hunton (Ted Levine).
There seemed to be more Stephen King adaptations than ever before in the nineteen-nineties, though for some reason of a lower quality than the previous decade had served up, both on television and in the movies. The Mangler was one example that could have been more promising, reuniting director Tobe Hooper with Stephen King, on paper at least, a combination that had seen one of the biggest television hits of 1979 when 'Salem’s Lot was adapted for a miniseries, but this was not a happy experience for Hooper and he left the production before shooting was completed, leaving it to be finished off by the producer who whipped the footage into some kind of shape.
That shape was very silly; the King source had not been one of his more sensible offerings in the first place, telling the tale of the titular press which liked the taste of blood and began to go out of its way to squash laundry workers in its maw, but it was one of his E.C. Comics-influenced short stories where the more lurid and bizarre it was, the more enjoyable it was to read. No classic, but fun in its nasty little way. Stretching this out to an hour and forty-five minutes proved something of a challenge, even with the famously economical Harry Alan Towers on co-scripting duties, padding out the South African/British production (wavering accents ahoy!) with a Satanic possession scheme that was no less absurd that what King had concocted.
Yet somehow, not as inventive - there had never been a short about a killer mangle before, it was safe to say, but there were plenty of horror flicks invoking horror and possession, and this committed the crime of applying those to a plot that originally enjoyed a neat, brutal simplicity. One issue was getting the characters in the proximity of the mechanical monster, which was eased slightly by the concept of it being difficult to turn off (!), but as with Jaws and not going into the water, not going into the laundry room would seem to be the obvious method for avoiding getting squished, not that anyone heeds that advice. This was presumably because the owner of the place was forever coaxing people inside, and had designs on Sherry who was his niece, and as Hunton discovers, the potential host for his corrupt soul.
Now, obviously there was going to be a villain doing this, but did he really need to be so blatant as Robert Englund here? His costume was preposterous enough, with a black three piece suit, glasses with one black lens, metal legs and crutches he stomped about on, and some contraption or other at his throat to keep him breathing. Combine that with the star's outrageously over the top pantomime that passed for acting and you were served up one of the ripest hams to be witnessed in this decade's horrors, and a bafflement that anybody would ever work for him as he was so patently a wrong 'un. Levine did his best but was saddled with the old "I can't believe this!"/"You must believe me!" character arc he could do nothing to bring to life, not even with a weird beard sidekick (Daniel Matmor) versed in the occult and a shutterbug who dispenses advice and for some reason was a young man in old man latex makeup, which no one remarks upon. There was a certain verve here, or was it a cheek that they thought they could get away with this nonsense? Whatever, The Mangler is a guilty pleasure for some, though it is a load of rubbish. Music by Barrington Pheloung.