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‘Mangler’ Turns Laundry Into Bloodbath

Glenn Lovell San Jose Mercury News

“The Mangler”

Theater: North Division

Cast: Directed by Tobe Hooper and starring Robert Englund, Ted Levine, Daniel Matmor, Jeremy Crutchley and Vanessa Pike.

Running time: 105 minutes

Rated: R

Tobe Hooper’s frantic and effective “The Mangler,” based on a Stephen King story, is set in the present, in a small New England town.

Life on the floor of Gartley’s Blue Ribbon Laundry, however, suggests another time, something closer to Dickensian England.

Old man Gartley’s sweatshop is straight out of an Industrial Revolution nightmare, wherein women and children are literally worked to the bone.

Gartley (Robert Englund, aka Freddy Krueger) bellows from the catwalk, “Work ‘em like there’s no tomorrow.” But the real monster here is the mangle, or steam ironer and folder. It’s a thing of pressure gauges, heavy chains and eerie red light. Its feeder is more like a hungry maw.

Already old Mrs. Frawley has turned her back on the mangler and been turned into a pile of not-soneatly pressed and folded viscera.

It’s the Frawley “accident” that brings Officer Hunton (Ted Levine of “Silence of the Lambs”) to the warehouse. A cursory investigation suggests the crippled Gartley has the town of Rykers Valley in some kind of stranglehold.

Hunton’s brother-in-law (Daniel Matmor), who dabbles in the occult, goes further: Gartley has forged some kind of unholy pact with the hellish machine, which runs on blood instead of electricity and oil.

Even if you’re a fan of “Christine” and other King stories about demonic possession, the idea of a ravenous clothes-folder probably strikes you as more than a little silly.

My advice to genre fans: Don’t write this one off. Not only is it a superior King adaptation, it represents Hooper’s most assured work since 1974 and his ghoulish masterwork, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

For years Hooper has been connected with ambitious chillers (“The Funhouse,” “Lifeforce”) that got away from him. The word was that his one big hit, the original “Poltergeist,” was in fact taken over by producer Steven Spielberg.

“The Mangler,” shot primarily on sound stages in England, finally vindicates Hooper.

Before it spins out of control, with a “Nightmare on Elm Street” finish in catacombs beneath the laundry, this stylish exercise in grand guignol combines first-rate sets (the mangler was designed by the director’s son, William Hooper) and hilariously demented performances (England in leg braces could be Captain Ahab; Levine’s tortured cop mumbles like Popeye).

In lesser hands, this wild concoction would seem crazed, out of control. Hooper, lifting grim sight gags from his magnum opus, “Chainsaw,” has delivered something bound to jangle the nerves of the most hardened buff.

Before he succumbs, one character jerks upright and vomits blood on the camera lens. This is Hooper’s way of thanking those in the media and industry who oversaw his premature burial.

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