Thursday, July 26, 2007

Stephen King, Tobe Hooper and The Mangler

I’m going to do something a little ridiculous: I’m going to try to defend a film that is almost universally regarded as one of the worst horror films in recent memory. I’ll start with a confession: I was one of the twenty or so people who saw Tobe Hooper’s “The Mangler” during its short theatrical run. My best friend and I went to a Sunday matinee in Charlottesville, VA, on opening weekend. Based on our ticket numbers, we quickly realized that we were among only a handful of people in town who saw it during those first few days. The film was pulled from circulation before the following weekend.

The combination of three factors convinced me to buy that ticket – and I suspect the same was true for the other nineteen suckers who attended. First and foremost: Stephen King. I started reading Stephen King novels when I was in middle school, and made my way through his entire catalogue by the time I was a sophomore in high school. Suffice to say that I am a fan of his work, but not the kind of fan who refuses to admit that some of his stories are a little spotty. As for the films: There have always been more failures than successes. I watch them all anyway – because most of them have some redeeming qualities.

The biggest problem with the film adaptations is that they fail to render the characters with as much depth as the novelist. So filmmakers really have the odds stacked against them when they try to adapt a short story into a feature-length film. “The Mangler” is one of the short stories in the author’s “Night Shift” collection, so maybe I should have had lower expectations. But, hell, Tobe Hooper was in the director’s chair…

To this day, Tobe Hooper’s claim to fame is his debut film, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” His first follow-up, “Eaten Alive” starring a young Robert Englund, was a pale imitation of that gritty Southern Gothic horror. His next film was “Salem’s Lot,” a TV miniseries based on King’s second novel. Though some of its potential was stripped by the restrictions of the medium, the miniseries was a solid effort that demonstrated the director’s mainstream potential. Throughout the 80s, he continued to turn out respectable films… but the 90s hit Tobe Hooper like a bomb.

For the most part, he survived on television. I remember a 1991 TV pilot called “Haunted Lives” that made a big impression on me… In fact, it was a lot like the Discovery show I worked on. By 1995, the director needed a hit to secure his future as a filmmaker. So he enlisted his buddy Robert Englund – who had recently retired the iconic character of Freddy Krueger (or so he thought) – to star in the latest Stephen King screen adaptation. Promotion was easy: three modern-day masters of horror, one movie. What could go wrong?

The original short story “The Mangler” was first published in Cavalier magazine in 1972, when King was just out of college. The setting came from the author’s own experiences – working in a blue-collar industrial laundry in rural Maine to pay his way through school – and the monster implied in the title is a massive speed-iron that was used in such sweat-shops. The story begins when a kindly old worker named Miss Frawley gets reduced to meat by the machine. Officer John Hunton, a burned-out cop with a guilt complex, investigates the death and discovers a trail of corruption that runs through the idyllic community of Riker’s Valley. It turns out that Miss Frawley is not the first one to be sacrificed to the machine. All of the town’s wealthiest and most influential citizens have sacrificed family members to it. As explained by Bill Gartley, owner of the Blue Ribbon Laundry, that is exactly what makes the community of Riker’s Valley thrive: a little blood to appease the pagan god.

The subtext is as pointed as it could be: American dreamers sacrifice the young and innocent to maintain wealth and power. The social elite build their fortunes on the backs of the disenfranchised working class. These are messages that haunted the young writer: King was raised in a working-class mill town by a single mother who juggled manual labor jobs, and never had much to show for it. King himself worked those same jobs (including one that became the basis for his short story “Graveyard Shift”) while attending college, where he led protests against the war in Vietnam. Like most of his friends and family, he was a member of the disenfranchised working class – meat for the machine – and the resulting rage was the subject of his earliest novels.

As critic Robin Wood has pointed out, the same subtext permeates “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” On one level, it is a story about what happens when workers at the bottom of America’s capitalist food chain are put out of work. Since the film was made and set in 1973, there can be little doubt that the war in Vietnam was also on the director’s mind. In the recent prequel “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning,” the filmmakers brought the subject of the Vietnam War to the surface of the story – perhaps because many Americans are currently comparing it to the Iraq War. They could have also drawn inspiration from Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation” – a vivid portrait of the dehumanizing effects of industrialization, and an indictment of contemporary American capitalism.

Considering the similarities to “Chainsaw,” I suspect that Tobe Hooper was trying to get back to his roots with “The Mangler.” There is at least one visual clue about this: He reveals the “mangled” bodies to us in the same cinematic style that he revealed the corpses to us in the opening scene of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” The impression is the same: We have no illusion that we are looking at a person. What we are seeing is simply a piece of meat. Alive of dead, that’s all the characters in this film can be.

Perhaps for that reason, most of the factory workers and blue-collar characters in the film are angry – from our crippled, lecherous old villain Gartley (“We all have to make sacrifices”) to our “hero” John Hunton (“Life’s a bitch, then you die.”) Those who aren’t angry are filled with despair – from kindly old Miss Frawley (who pops pain pills like they’re candy) to J.J.J. Pictureman, the town’s crime scene photographer / mortician (who says he’s suffering from some vague terminal illness that is “eating him up inside”). We can hardly blame them. They spend all of their time in a dark, dirty factory on the edge of a town that is allegedly idyllic. They are all simply part of the machine. This reminds me of a line from Scottish poet James’s Thompson’s rant against industrialism, “The City of Dreadful Night”:

The world rolls round for ever like a mill;
It grounds out death and life and good and ill;
It has no purpose, heart or mind or will

But this is too poetic for “The Mangler.” Its characters do not recite poetry. They just bitch and moan and curse. That’s one reason why this movie is so easy to hate – because its characters are so easy to hate. I’ll bet Ted Levine hates himself (or at least his agent) for having to speak some of the ludicrous dialogue in this film. (He uses the phrase “miserable piece of dogf**k” at least twice.)

Perhaps the other big reason that the film is so easy to hate is that it sets us in a spirit-numbingly naturalistic world, then casually drops a supernatural demon into it. This, admittedly, is King’s doing – not Hooper’s. The demon is his way of turning an angry political diatribe into an entertaining horror story. And Hooper has no intention of downplaying the elements of his source material, even if what works on paper is comically surreal onscreen. The film goes for broke in the last act, when one of the most laughable exorcisms in screen history causes the mechanical monster to sprout legs and start chasing Ted Levine while spewing fire. You’ve got to see it to believe it.

So… with its intriguing subtext and its over-the-top ending, does “The Mangler” qualify as one of those “so bad it’s good” movies? Does it deserve this level of analysis? I think so. To me, it’s an interesting idea that doesn't quite work – but I still laughed, gagged, and even wanted to know more about the film’s most interesting character.

J.J.J. Pictureman, played by Jeremy Crutchley, tells Hunton that they “share the same demons.” This implies that both men are haunted by guilt over some tragedy in their past. We know about Hunton’s tragedy, but we never learn anything about Pictureman’s. I like to think that he was one of the town’s wealthy elite at one time. Maybe he’s even Gartley’s brother… that would explain why the two actors are made up to look so much alike. Whatever his reasoning, Pictureman pleads with Hunton to fight – to expose the corruption and evil that is thriving beneath the picture-perfect surface of things. That makes him the real spokesman for King and Hooper’s angry message. Too bad he wasn't the main character.

As an afterthought, I have to add that Hooper and Robert Englund really redeemed themselves with their first-season episode of Showtime’s Masters of Horror, “Dance of the Dead.” This post-apocalyptic short film has all the nihilism of the best horror films of the 1970s, and reminds me of another Stephen King short story called “Night Surf,” which revolves around a group of hopeless teenagers who have seen civilization get wiped out by a deadly plague. The episode doesn’t go down easy, but it stays with you – and that’s what good horror stories are supposed to do.

1 comment:

  1. Joe,
    It's nice to see a few words in defense of The Mangler. To be fair, I think this would have been a tall order for any director to execute effectively. There's just something inherently not frightening about laundry equipment. But I would argue that Tobe Hooper probably makes what would be an otherwise run-of-the-mill King adaptation worth a look at least (which is about as much as one could expect).

    I actually remember being enticed by the image of the machine chasing the heroes in the preview (although not enough to head out to the theater : ) When I finally rented it, I knew it was a low point for Hooper, but I didn't regret seeing it. Some of the imagery was very good, and it had a nicely established bleak mood from what I recall (similar to Hooper's early works).

    An aspect I still find neat is that the hero of the film is played by Ted Levine. He's certainly not your standard hero, especially since he was mostly known for Buffalo Bill at the time, and therefore was an interesting choice. One thing about Hooper is his leading men/women are often very "ordinary" (e.g. Marilyn Burns, Craig T. Nelson, Steve Railsback, Brad Dourif) in that they aren't cardboard Hollywood heroes. The Mangler continues that tradition and is better for it.

    On a Stephen King-related note, I really enjoyed Night Shift as a teen . . . but there were so many other stories that would have made better films. The Mangler might have worked better in an anthology film or as a Twilight Zone episode. I guess the almighty dollar can make folks do crazy things!

    Either way, I agree that it's worth a look for the curious or budding Hooper fans. It's just a shame that the downward spiral continued from here. That said, I can't wait to see Dance of the Dead!

    Best, Jim