From Book to Screen: The Mangler
Last time in this Stephen King Book to Screen series, we covered the first of many films adapted from King’s first short story collection, Night Shift. Our series will continue to work through these, skipping lightly over the short stories Night Surf and I Am the Doorway because neither of those have yet received feature-length adaptations. Both do have short film adaptations, which we may come back and cover at greater length at the conclusion of this blog series.
Night Surf has already been mentioned as the story that would eventually become The Stand. The short film was produced in 2001 and directed by Peter Sullivan. It continues to screen at film festivals and has been well-received by most audiences. It was one of the Dollar Baby collection, a series of short stories that King sold for a dollar to student filmmakers and others trying to break into the industry. Acclaimed director Frank Darabont, who would go on to direct three feature-length Stephen King adaptations, got his start with a Dollar Baby film.
I Am the Doorway is another one optioned for a dollar in 2009 to Czech director Robin Kašparík. His film will utilize fulldome technology and appears slated for a 2017 release based on the latest trailer. The story is a frightening combination of body horror and sci-fi that seems like something David Cronenberg would love to get at.
For a feature, though, we must skip to the next story in the Night Shift collection: a story featuring a demonically possessed laundry press…
The Mangler published originally in Cavalier magazine, like the majority of the stories in Night Shift. It debuted in the December 1972 issue and presumably had enough appeal to be included in the published collection. Unlike most of King’s stories, the author didn’t bother to specify the setting of this one. It can be assumed to take place in Maine considering that’s where the majority of his work is set. The action of this story unfolds mostly in an industrial laundry building; King was inspired to write this based on his own experience working for an industrial laundry company. It was one of many jobs he took before his writing career took off enough to support his family.
In The Mangler we follow a police detective who is in the middle of investigating a string of gruesome deaths tied to an industrial laundry machine. While industrial accidents are common, the odd nature of these deaths is what triggers the story. The detective learns from an occult-minded friend that the potential for demonic possession exists because the ingredients for a summoning ritual — including a bat, which would become the catalyst for one of King’s later books about a monstrous St. Bernard — have accidentally wound up in the innards of the machine. The pair determine that exorcism is the only solution, and plan to carry it out, but they underestimate the power of the evil due to not knowing the last ingredient that managed to sneak into the machine.
Like Graveyard Shift, The Mangler is another story that could only really work because of the power of the prose. However, this story is even less effective than Graveyard Shift, largely because of the inherent silliness of an evil laundry press. I like to think King’s use of dumb luck as the reason for the press getting possessed is his way of talking about the randomness of evil in the world, but I’m sure this was just King trying to churn out content. The Mangler is amusing to read, but not particularly noteworthy, and is likely best forgotten.
…So of course it was turned into a film.
The Mangler released in March of 1995. Unlike Graveyard Shift, this one was both a critical and commercial failure. It barely managed to round up $1.1 million on the 800 screens on which it was shown, and critics lambasted the shoddy script, poor direction, and across-the-board atrocious acting. Somehow this meant that two sequels were made, but as usual I won’t be covering the sequels as they aren’t directly based on King’s material. Were the critics of the 90s wrong, and does this stand as a forgotten masterpiece? Or is this truly a terrible film?
Definitely the latter. A film that revolves around a stationary laundry machine has a lot to overcome to be successful. Horror films do operate on shaky logic at times in order to generate scary situations, but the sheer obviousness of the solution here — simply not entering the room in which this demonic machine is located — will have you shouting throughout the entire runtime.
The movie does attempt to create a plot that can sustain a 100-minute film, but to call the plot half-baked would be an insult to half-baked goods everywhere. Instead of happenstance, as in the short story, the possession in the film is the result of the efforts of a sadistic laundry facility owner played by an admittedly entertaining Robert Englund. Englund, as always, understands what kind of film he is in, and hams it up as much as possible. There’s a generic explanation about sacrificing people to the laundry press in order to sustain his power, or something. I didn’t really care to give it much attention. Englund’s character ends up trying to sacrifice his daughter or niece (or something) to the machine, and the audience is supposed to care (apparently).
It’s even sadder to consider that this comes from the hands of director Tobe Hooper. How the mighty have fallen. I was critical of his ‘Salem’s Lot adaptation, but I did note that there were a lot of great shots and he certainly was able to create multiple genuinely frightening scenes. The Mangler has none of those positive qualities. Nothing in this film is remotely scary aside from the sharp decline of Hooper’s career. The shooting is lazy, with no creative spark or flair.
Not that I can blame Hooper for being uninspired with this mediocre script. The attempts to stretch out the narrative are simply embarrassing. Characters act in insanely stupid ways, such as an old lady reaching into the laundry press to get pills. I mean really? Really? Our lead character, a police detective played by Ted Levine, drives around the town (and the plot) largely aimlessly until his loony occult-obsessed friend finally convinces him that maybe the laundry machine is possessed by a demon. The writing of the friend character is also purely ridiculous, but is played straight-faced for whatever reason. Levine and the rest of the cast that isn’t Englund are truly embarrassing, turning in a mixture of half-efforts or betraying a complete dearth of talent.
Did I mention that Levine and his friend also have to battle a possessed refrigerator?
The Final Verdict
The Mangler is an embarrassment of a film. That said, because it is such an embarrassment, it is more entertaining than the adaptation of Graveyard Shift. If, like me, you love B-rate schlock, then you’ll probably get some laughs out of this one. I can’t place it in the upper echelons of so-bad-it’s-good territory, but this is surely one of the funnier King adaptations I’ve seen. Apart from that, it’s certainly not worth watching. Casual King fans won’t get much out of it, and even if you happen to be a huge fan of the short story, the film has to invent plenty of material to become a feature-length film. It preserves the twist ending, but that doesn’t make it a must-see unless you’re a true King completist.
- Ranked #29,696 globally
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- Wins 24% of matchups
- 1 person has it at #1 (WHO?)
- 56/80 on the Stephen King filter
With a fair number of films under our belts in this series, I thought I’d start including my ranking of the King adaptations. I’ve ranked according to how entertaining I find each film. Feel free to share your lists in the comments, or tell me how wrong my list is!
- Carrie (1976)
- The Stand
- Stephen King’s The Shining (1994)
- The Shining (1980)
- Salem’s Lot (2004)
- Salem’s Lot (1979)
- Carrie (2013)
- The Mangler
- Graveyard Shift
- Carrie (2002)