Local handyman Hadley Watson is in a bit of a slump. He hasn't had a paid service come in for days, his wife finally snaps and chews him out for being a worthless nobody, and the machine he's renovating in his workshop snips him in the hand. Well, it just so happens that this machine is the core of the original Mangler, which caught Hadley's eye at an antique sale as something to occupy his time. Now that he's spilled blood on it, the device is eager for more, so takes control of the body of poor Hadley as he first feeds it his wife, then vulnerable young women in the neighborhood who call him for household repairs.
This is a pretty typical setup for a horror movie - cursed object turns someone into a serial killer - but the use of the Mr. Fixit handyman who turns on the people letting him into their homes is mildly compelling. In fact, one could almost consider this a loose, alternate adaptation of King's short story "The Lawnmower Man" in that, while they obviously can't make its specific scenario a scene here as those rights are owned elsewhere, it has the same air of an everyday stranger doing work on our homes who suddenly takes a turn to the nasty. I wouldn't argue Weston Blakesley is a great actor, but his paunchy, hangdog appearance and bulging eyes gives Hadley the striking look of the everyman, the one who can prey on us in our midsts without us realizing until it's too late, and I like the recurring use of a rubber mallet as his killing tool of choice.
Sadly, most of the film doesn't make use of this setup. Instead of spreading throughout the neighborhood, we follow Hadley to his home, and stick there for the bulk of the running time. Our focus also shifts to Rick and Mike, a father/son team of burglars, who've been casing Hadley's house as he's rarely home. Once they're in, the doors have spring locks that can't be opened from inside, the windows are bricked up, there's women screaming in locked up rooms, the Mangler heart in a workshop reeking with the smell of death, and the only escape lies in the keys on Hadley's belt, which are hard to reach without falling victim to his rubber mallet.
Again, a it's setup which starts off interesting as we explore invaders into the home of what they discover is a serial killer. The two actors, Reggie Banniser and Scott Spieser are the highlights of the cast, and while they're criminals, they're crooks we can care about as they're coming into this with past connection issues shoved aside when it all goes to pot, and Rick having a great hero moment as he refuses to leave the trapped women behind, even if it means he'll be caught.
Returning to the word "sadly", while this is a compelling setup with a pair of good actors, it's in the midst of a dreary, dragging film which tries to draw out every moment so as to keep the tension wound, but is as unaware that said tension has unspooled into boredom as the frequently stupid characters are of things which are often standing right next to or behind them. Rick is casing the interior of the house, but failed to notice FOR SEVERAL MINUTES, the wall smeared with bloody handprints. Jamie, a captured woman I'll get to in a second, finally slips out of her room, but doesn't grab the keychain which is sitting right on the floor in front of her. And she's not in a rush, no, she very slowly creeps over it without thinking, "Hey, this is a thing I'll need." The droning score creates a great atmosphere, but far too many attempts at legitimate tension are fumbled by stupid bits like this, or replaying people evading Hadley in the house three times through three different people before any actual progress in the scenario is made. Same with the often campy acting which feels like it belongs in a 60s B-movie. In fact, quite a bit of this film - languid pace, awful acting choices, campy gore - feel like we're watching an old Hershel Gordon Lewis splatter fest, albeit without the colorful charms. Especially bits like Jamie having to climb down a chute full of people mulch, only for the killer to have gone down to the bottom, and so she has to climb right back up it.
Jamie is our eventual lead, our "final girl" if you will, and while she does have the decent setup of a girl at the end of an increasingly bad day where she's lost her job and had her boyfriend dump her, the directing duo doesn't really help us care when the moment of her pouring out all her emotion in tears happens in the shower after a lingering 20 second closeup of her tits. Also, while Aime Brooks isn't an awful actress and I actually quite like her near the ends as she's covered in blood and chasing Hadley with a nailed wooden plank, there's too many bits where she lays the melodramatic performances on thick, shrieking "Don't leave me!" to people trying to hide, or shrieking "Oh god oh god!" while she's trying to hide, so that when she finally takes charge near the end, it feels like a different character coming in too late.
Erik Gardner and Matt Cunningham, the co-writing/co-directing duo, don't have a whole lot of experience in those field (the former is a production assistant, the latter a researcher for Ancient Aliens), which shows as this often suffers from the clumsiness one finds in first-time local festival films, where camera work tries to emulate cool setups which end up feeling stagy and flat, the dialogue doesn't sound the way people actually talk, and there's a lot of raw on-set audio which makes the added sounds (mostly slurping and squelching) stand out as artificial. There is potential in there, as they do have good ideas for a lot of the sequences, it's just glazed over with too thick a layer of amateurism for them to properly sell what they're aiming for, thus leaving it largely dull and lacking in resonance. Even the ending where Jaime and Hadley both go into the Mangler, only for Hadley to show up perfectly fine at another house call, is less a shocking twist than it is an eyeroll which left me wondering what the actual point of the last 80 minutes had been.
This is nowhere near as awful a movie as The Mangler 2, but nor is it a film worth anyone's time. In concept, it's an okay attempt to swirl the franchise with that of "Lawnmower Man", but the execution is just so shoddy and dreary, and the material so unable to fully connect with the potential of its good ideas, that the film is ultimately a dud.
Castle Rock series index.