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[Alpha and Omega] Tobe Hooper – ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ and ‘The Mangler’

‘Alpha and Omega’ is a recurring feature that examines a famous horror director’s best critically received film and their worst reviewed installment (according to Rotten Tomatoes). It will compare and contrast these two efforts, looking at the difference in the auteur’s work and seeing if any overlap exists as these two extremes of the director’s career are examined.

We peel back the layers of Tobe Hooper’s arguably best and worst films, ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ and ‘The Mangler’

“I just can’t take no pleasure in killing. There’s just some things you gotta do. Don’t mean you have to like it.” – The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

“Have you considered the possibility that the machine may be haunted?”– The Mangler

Any horror fan worth their weight in fake blood has The Texas Chain Saw Massacre somewhere on their “Best Of” list. The same can likely be said for having the eerie, memorable beats from Poltergeist etched in to their brains and getting jumpy every time the TV reverts to static. For these reasons and oh so many more, Tobe Hooper has earned himself a considerable amount of street cred in the horror community. He’s made some damn good movies.

Obviously Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Poltergeist are Hooper’s big numbers, but he’s put out dozens of features. His filmography is far from perfect though, with there being plenty of outright forgettable productions, as well as misfires that seem to imply a complete misunderstanding of the craft. He’s the director of Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, for instance, as well as the disastrous space vampire romp, Lifeforce. Hooper would also turn out some great shorts by contributing to a ton of horror anthology series like Freddy’s Nightmares, Tales From the Crypt, Masters of Horror, and one of my personal favorites, Perversions of Science. He’s also responsible for helming one of the better segments in John Carpenter’s Body Bags. Hooper is also still steadily working and churning out horror, with his latest being 2013’s flawed, yet commendable Djinn. “Alpha and Omega” will take two pivotal films from Hooper’s oeuvre, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (which currently has an 88% on Rotten Tomatoes) and The Mangler (which currently has a 20% on Rotten Tomatoes), and examine the similarities between the pictures and how they chart Hooper’s changing sensibilities as a filmmaker.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was only the second film under Tobe Hooper’s belt (after 1969’s Eggshells) when it made a contentious name for itself in the horror community in 1974. It’s such a lightning in a bottle film that who knows if it could even be made nowadays, even if the exact same conditions were present. Hooper had no reputation when championing this film, with his anonymity nearly playing into his advantage. Some people legitimately believed that the filmmaker here was as crazy as the subjects within the picture. Obviously as Hooper’s career went on people would understand that he’s a film scholar and not a psychopath.

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Right from the moment that Texas Chain Saw Massacre begins Hooper is working to establish the film’s tone. A lengthy, foreboding preamble narrations kicks off the picture. Its purpose is to intentionally ground all of this, making it seem real and pulled out of the cracks of middle America. This is facts and data you’re looking at, not some flashy intro sequence. It’s like part of the introduction used in The Conjuring films—other horror pictures which are pulled from “real” life. Even though this similarity is purely coincidental it implies evidence of a style where this approach is being done to make all of this seem more genuine. This idea is played with later on in the movie where a very realistic radio broadcast can be heard that outlines more real-life horrors in a very matter-of-factly manner.

These injections of reality are to displace the unbelievable things that Hooper keeps showing you. The film wants you in the real world as this horror blends in, whereas The Mangler—from pretty early on in the film, even—depicts a ridiculous world with absurd characters and even more ridiculous situations fueling the horror. No attempt is made to naturalize this, not that it’d be the right move, but it does show the different worlds that Hooper would move to as a director. He shifts from the hyper-real world of Chain Saw Massacre to the near-parody universe of The Mangler. Even Poltergeist, a film in Hooper’s career that’s between these two extremes still depicts a real world even if outrageous, effects-heavy demons are invading it. Also, for what it’s worth, Hooper’s Poltergeist also has an 88% on Rotten Tomatoes, but with Chain Saw sitting on a higher IMDB and Metacritic rating than Poltergeist (not to mention the rumors that large chunks of Poltergeist are in fact Steven Spielberg’s work), it seemed like the more suitable selection here. However Poltergeist will still be touched on where applicable.

One of Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s many charms is its minimalist, stoically deep script, whereas The Mangler throws around gutter language like, “miserable piece of dogfuck” (and more than once, at that!). This is how the lower class operates. Texas Chain Saw is also loosely based on Ed Gein’s murders and warped events from real life, which provides all the more reason to inject grounded horror into this outing. Nobody is betting that The Mangler is a true story, so that weight and connection is inherently broken from the start

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Let’s dig into The Mangler for a bit because this film is something else. I in fact hadn’t heard about this film until fairly recently, but it instantly excited me because you’d think it would be great. It’s Tobe Hooper directing an adaptation of a Stephen King short story. Hey! Maybe it’ll be a lot like Christine, when John Carpenter did a lot with a ridiculous King concept. Well, I guess it is like Christine, but just with exceptionally lower stakes. Those stakes in question involve a possessed laundry folding machine, and to a lesser extent, a haunted fridge. It’s understandably awful.

Did The Mangler even stand a chance in the first place? Could this have been made into a good horror film? This is how it was selling itself, for example. It does seem to fit in with weird King stories like Monkey Shines and Christine, all made by competent horror directors, with terribly mixed results. These are ideas that I can easily see functioning as effective short stories but just fall apart when you bring them to life. I guarantee there was one set piece from the story that made them want to adapt this narrative and then they were just stuck with putting the rest of a movie around it. Like, I legitimately don’t know if you could make a good horror film out of this movie—like if anyone could. Maybe a short film. There’s an episode of NewsRadio that is basically this story, only they handle it a whole lot better. So, there’s also that.

Also, I’m not sure if laundry folding machines were still a heavy presence or if they were on the way out when King’s Night Shift was published, but they were certainly an irrelevant idea in 1995. That being said, the film carries on as if they’re the most important tools in the world. Meanwhile the cliché, crotchety boss, Bill Gartley, yells about having deadlines as if he’s some sort of business mogul, but it’s just laundry. King’s short story is pulled from his own youth working in such a factory, but that would have been in the ‘50s or ‘60s. Hooper’s film makes no attempt to set the film back in time or update the elements that it’s composed from (although a film about some possessed washer and drier combo isn’t any more terrifying…).

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Interestingly enough, Hooper uses The Mangler as a place to say something about the lower class of society and the state of America, with this film coming out just over 20 years after Texas Chain Saw Massacre did, which also carries this as its backbone. The Mangler rubs a sloppy theme in your face about how the American dream and The Golden Buck is obtained by sacrificing the young and eager in order to hold onto your power and success. It’s a theme that also makes a lot more sense for a young writer rather than a past middle-aged director. In this context it takes on a very different light about needing to take advantage in order to stay relevant. It’s a message that’s buried beneath so much hokeyness though, or made embarrassingly transparent. Texas Chain Saw is also saying a lot about the American dream, those at the bottom of the food chain, and how to stay afloat, but in an entirely subtle way that’s open to interpretation. It seems like Hooper has traded versatility and open-endedness for a more clear-cut condemnation of the country. The Mangler is a much less subtle film than Chain Saw Massacre, but maybe it’s because America has fallen so much it can’t handle subtlety any longer. It needs something as blunt and easy as a haunted laundry machine.

The biggest, and really only true crossover of these films is that the way Hooper presents the destroyed bodies in The Mangler is virtually identical to how he shows us the corpses in the beginning of Texas Chain Saw Massacre. These aren’t people any more, these are pieces of mangled meat that have been chewed up and spit out by America. Otherwise, Texas Chain Saw Massacre is actually one of the least bloody horror films out there as Hooper sought to achieve a PG rating (at one point it was looking at an X rating, in spite all his work). It still achieves this level of horror without it, whereas Mangler gets needlessly bloody and gory, in almost a reversal of the sensibilities in play here.

As a point of comparison, Texas Chain Saw’s “meat hook scene” is almost more upsetting that a straight-up murder, while also letting your imagination do most of the work. The big showpiece death that kicks off The Mangler is so bloody and over the top. There are so many weird elements to the scene, too, like the woman trying to get her pills, of all things, from the machine before she’s brutally chewed up. Later on the detectives gratuitously vomit over this carnage. It’s not much longer until someone’s getting terribly steamed and burned by this machine, too. All the violence in here is literally in your face and unflinching, almost as if Hooper is saying that America and working society have only gotten more ruthless through the years.

In The Mangler, a lot of this Americanism is spouting from Englund’s Bill Gartley, and honestly not enough can be said about how many problems there are with this ridiculous character and performance. He acts like he’s out of an entirely different era and sports insane prosthetic/crutches while being half cataract-ed. He’s like some David Lynch character. And there’s no reason for any of this! He could just be a regular boss! There’s just a general why? to all of this as Gartley goes on chanting things like, “Time is money,” and “Work like there’s no tomorrow!”

THE MANGLER, Robert Englund, 1995

At the time of this film, Englund had retired the Freddy Krueger character and due to being good friends and occasional work partners with Tobe Hooper, he thought that staring in the latest Stephen King adaptation would be the right move for him. What’s clear here though is that Englund is missing his nightmare monster character more than ever as Bill Gartley chews the scenery every chance he gets while delivering such a hyperbolized performance.

It’s worth noting that there’s a considerable rumor that Hooper filmed most of The Mangler, but then in fact left towards the end before being replaced by Anant Singh, who’s a producer, not a director (in spite of still having some cred by producing a bunch of cheesy horror titles from the ‘80s, and then later Pulse). Can’t find out more on what drove Hooper to leave though and just how much exactly Singh took over, especially since he’s not a director. The latest release of The Mangler also claims to be the “Director’s Cut” though, so perhaps what we have is still the closest possible thing to Hooper’s vision or that this rumor is exactly that.

Regardless, infuriating logic leaps fuel The Mangler in a way that you’re constantly asking why is this happening!!! Just close the factory! What’s the big deal? Just don’t stand near the laundry folding machine if people are dying from it! Even more embarrassing is that the solution really just comes down to a chant and some holy water to be fixed. More perplexing is the lack of explanation between how the haunted laundry folder and refrigerator are even connected in the first place!

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There’s a nonsense logic to Texas Chain Saw, but the random nature there actually adds to the horror. It does more with less, whereas with The Mangler it feels like these things just weren’t thought through (or nobody cared) and they amount to shoddy plotting. There’s even a regrettable swami and mysticism angle that the film dips into for a while that doesn’t do anyone any favors. In Texas Chain Saw Massacre the characters are trapped in their dilemma. They’d love to just get up and leave, whereas this shows people repeatedly, willingly putting themselves in danger. There are really only deaths happening because people are continually putting themselves around this equipment. It’s not like it kidnapped them like in Chain Saw.

Let’s get back to that haunted fridge though, because it’s pretty laughable in every regard. From it trying to “eat” someone as lights flash and canted angles attempt to make it look menacing, to it repeatedly getting beat up until a tornado starts swirling out of its top, confirming its supernatural status. The effects around the beginning of the film as well as the incident that “activates” the “Mangler” look so bad in comparison to Hooper’s other work with effects in stuff like Poltergeist. This is truly some of the worst ‘90s CGI you’ll come across. You’d think that Hooper would have better judgment regarding this sort of effects work at this later stage of his career. Chain Saw Massacre also goes in the other direction completely by involving so little special effects. The effects that are present are make-up work and their job is to look as real as possible, not make you think of invaders from another dimension. It’s about homegrown horror, not extraterrestrial terror. Texas Chain Saw Massacre even used actual skeletons in certain scenes, adding further authenticity to Hooper’s production, whereas The Mangler looks as fake as they come. Not that this sort of detail is important, but it does once again show the extremes at play here. Even Chain Saw’s trailer is an exercise in barebones realism.

The Mangler also features some very bad and forgettable music and cinematography, where certain aesthetic touches like these could have lent some saving grace to the befuddled production. Both of these areas excel in Texas Chain Saw, using sound and the camerawork to enhance the fear and plunge the viewer deeper into this nightmare rather than simply being utilitarian and getting the job done, like is the case in The Mangler. Chain Saw even creatively features no conventional musical instruments on its soundtrack, instead just using noises that animals would hear in a slaughterhouse. This is again another way of the film implying that we, and the characters in the film are animals in a cage, whereas The Mangler has to get explicit on the matter to make such points.

THE MANGLER, Robert Englund, Ted Levine, 1995, (c)New Line Cinema

In spite of The Mangler’s many downfalls, it’s at least not a slow film. It moves fast and keeps adding fuel to this ridiculous fire. The film doesn’t take time to get going or throw you into the situation. It certainly has a faster pace than Texas Chain Saw and gets to its carnage much earlier in the run time. That’s not to say that Hooper is a less patient filmmaker at this later stage in his career, he’s just going for a different sort of atmosphere. He wants the audience to immediately be on edge here, and he achieves that by a big, bloody murder, whereas Chain Saw uses words to prepare its viewer.

When it comes to the films’ endings, The Mangler’s sees Gartley’s daughter taking over her father’s factory and has adopted his mannerisms to a degree so absurd that you’d think he’s possessed her. Not only that, but she’s also damaged and braced in the exact same way that her father was. It’s just dumb and it’s exactly the sort of unearned, tacked on ending that would become the problem with manipulative ‘90s horror rather than the genuinely alarming note that Texas Chain Saw Massacre goes out on. The ending there is a startling exclamation point whereas The Mangler goes out on a series of question marks and ellipses.

Furthermore, this idea of a familial, generational aspect of horror is Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s bread and butter! They’re “a whole family of Draculas,” after all. Technically The Mangler’s conclusion can be seen as a continuation of that theme as well as how this idea is also linked to success in America, but it’s half-assed (quarter-assed, really) and too late. It hits like a joke whereas the Sawyer family and their legacy of horror is legitimately terrifying.

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In spite of The Mangler’s shoddiness, several sequels still ended up getting made, which I suppose acts as another minor connection point between this film and Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which also saw a slew of haphazard sequels. Hooper certainly establishes distinct worlds in both of these pictures, to say the least. It’s a little surprising in the end to see the number of similarities that Tobe Hooper’s debatably best and worst films share, even if they are mostly in terms of theme and symbolism. It should be very clear that The Mangler isn’t meant to act as any sort of follow-up to Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but it’s fascinating to see the same ideas percolating within Hooper’s head, expressing themselves through wildly different means that happen to nicely bookend his career.

In the meantime, Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury’s take on extending the “Leatherface” universe is soon to be upon us, however nobody seems eager to push back the boundaries of The Mangler-verse and return to this property. I extend my challenge that there’s not a good movie lying within this premise, but that’s just more of a reason to prove me wrong, everyone. Prove me wrong and make The Mangler: Re-Mangled the greatest thing horror’s ever seen.

Englund’s still available.

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