The title of Tobe Hooper’s “The Mangler” may suggest a new villain ready to out-mayhem Jason or Freddy, but its culprit is, of all things, a crotchety piece of laundry equipment. That silly contrivance, along with lackluster story and thesping, should guarantee the would-be frightfest a short spin and quick fade at the box office.
Pic revisits familiar Stephen King territory with its small-town Maine setting, discovery of evil in the most banal of implements, and Gothic tweaking of Yankee propriety. Here, cleanliness is next to godliness’ exact opposite. The Blue Ribbon Laundry, an updated Victorian sweatshop, operates under the harsh discipline of aged owner Bill Gartley (Robert Englund), who, with his three-piece suit, metal crutches and leg braces, looks like a bizarre cross between Dr. Strangelove and one of Frank Capra’s heartless bankers.
Gartley demonstrates the extent of his heartlessness one day when the laundry’s largest machine, an ancient speed iron, gobbles up and spits out a beloved worker. The boss wants her traumatized co-workers back on the job as soon as possible, but there’s a slight delay due to the police investigation launched by officer John Hunton (Ted Levine). While the cop senses that Gartley has his own dirty laundry to hide, his first discovery is that the tycoon exercises enough sway over local officials to sail past a safety inspection.
Not that it makes a great deal of sense, but the town’s next casualty is a boy who suffocates inside an old ice box that has had brief contact with its mechanical cousin at the laundry. “Transference of evil,” explains Hunton’s friend Mark Jackson (Daniel Matmor), a New Agey “theoretical parapsychologist” filling the role of the wise perfesser, who gives names to the tale’s icky anomalies.
Gartley, meanwhile, displays a lecherous hold over Lin Sue (Lisa Morris), a lissome lass injured in the morning’s accident, as well as shadowy designs on his own teenage niece, Sherry (Vanessa Pike), who also spilled some blood into the machine’s hungry maw. As Hunton will eventually discover, that blood is crucial to the laundry king’s longstanding pact with his devilish contraption.
Revealing the truth of these satanic safety violations, which are formulaic to the point of absurdity, entails many reels of pointless running around and milking of subplots. With its clunky narrative and lack of solid scares or gory effusions until the obligatory all-stops-out climax, pic ends up with little to excite fans of “Elm Street”-style shockers or Hooper’s own “Poltergeist.”
Englund does some amiably baroque scenery-chewing as the burg’s diabolical Mr. Clean, but other actors never rise above the run of the milltown. Tech credits are OK.