The Toolbox Murders Review

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by Chris McEneany Feb 5, 2010 at 12:00 AM

    The Toolbox Murders Review
    When the money-men discovered that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was still playing to packed houses on a cinematic re-run, exploitation producer Tony Didio was tasked with coming up with something similar to its jaded storyline and, hopefully, to be able to catch hold of the same sort of wild-card popularity that propelled Tobe Hooper's classic horror to immortal cult-dom. Well, history has certainly ensured that his ensuing production of The Toolbox Murders gained its own notoriety, and even something of a cult status - but the 1978 thriller just does not come anywhere near the gruelling heights of Texas Chainsaw. With writers Robert Easter and Ann N. Kindberg assigned with finding something nasty and taboo-busting, they clearly latched onto some of what made Hooper's film so infamous. For a kick off, they allegedly based their story of an apartment block massacre and the abduction, ordeal and rape of a teenage girl on a true account, much as the events in Hooper's film were claimed to be, although in Chainsaw's case this was clearly just for effect and marketing. Didio, himself, even doubts the veracity of much of this. They swapped chainsaws for an entire handyman's tool-kit, even making sure to entrench the word Toolbox firmly into the film's title to garner immediate shivers of fear, and also found an avenue for some exceedingly warped familial dysfunctionality. But the similarities end there. Neither the writers, the director, Dennis Donnelly - fresh from the TV seedbed that would swiftly reclaim him straight after this, his first theatrical feature - nor Didio had any understanding of the horror genre and their film, despite what they claimed at the time and what DiDio and his co-commentators on this disc still believe, is most definitely not a good horror film.

    But empowered by 80's “Nasty” notoriety and now tooled-up with a cutting-edge new hi-def transfer from Blue Underground, Tony Didio's exploitation curio rams its way back onto the scene, still sporting something of a dubious reputation thanks to all that promotional blurd adorning its sleeve. One of those condemned and vilified shockers from the era that seemed to know no bounds, this DIY slasher carved itself a niche on the DPP list of banned videos and courted controversy even in its more forgiving homeland of the USA for its perceived sexual violence and grand misogyny.

    But this really was a case of both mistaken identity and blatant falsehoods. The remarkable thing is that this film, just like Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead a few years afterwards, was awarded possibly the best epithet that a genre film could receive in those days - a glowing recommendation from none other than Stephen King, who placed it in his top ten scary videos. With such celebrated but, in truth, incredibly flippant praise from the literary terror titan, himself (he was at the time, folks, he was at the time), The Toolbox Murders then went on to garner itself something of a new lease of life on home video in much the same way - although on a much lower scale - that its major influence, Texas Chainsaw, had done on its cinematic re-release. I can vividly recall seeking it out on videotape after reading reviews of it in magazines and, especially, after seeing a copy of the cassette held up on the TV news as a raw example of the explicit and depraved nature of so-called Video Nasties during that now-positively quaint media witch-hunt. Yet, even at that tender age, I knew that The Toolbox Murders just wasn't the gory fright-fest that so many had claimed it was. Had this version been cut? Well, yes, as it turned out ... but only by the merest second or two on tape (a lot more had been removed from the theatrical print) ... and even with the footage reinstated, the film just didn't cut the mustard. Of course, with time and experience, you learn to appreciate things a little differently, and to, perhaps, understand how such things that now seem incredibly pedestrian and lacklustre could once have been deemed outrageous and horrific. And Toolbox does have that salacious and occasionally repugnant grindhouse quality that usually demonised far more gruesome offerings. It is just not a good film, though, even by the expectedly low standards that the form. In fact, once the killing-spree is over and done with, it just meanders into a series of dull procedural dead-ends, amateur-night performances, schlock narrative twists and a complete cop-out of an ending.

    Okay, so we have a brutal killer wearing a balaclava and utilising his collection of tools - power-drill, screwdriver, claw-hammer and nail-gun - to go about his grisly business, room by room, in order to wipe-out women of less-than-saintly repute in some deranged fundamentalist crusade. However, this first act run of slaughter seems deliberately at odds with the drama that unfolds throughout the majority of the film. For a start, we swiftly become laboured with insipid and totally useless detective work during the ensuing police investigation. Characters are trundled in to deliver pretty woeful performances and the massive give-away that transforms the murder-mystery into the realm of uncomfortable angsty TV drama-of-the-week becomes, for many gore-hounds, a lull between killings that, well, doesn't actually end ... and doesn't deliver a good enough final pay-off to have made the journey worthwhile, either.

    Quite how the film gained such legendary status is still something of an enigma. And those who have come to it over the years since it was released to discover for themselves just why this little potboiler earned such infamy have, more often than not, been disappointed by what they found, and stumped by the sensational hype that drew them in.

    Strangely un-gory for a film with such a title and reputation, Toolbox is a very curious beast indeed. With the killings mostly over and done with in the first third of the film, the rest of the narrative then swirls into the murky and often offbeat allure of the psycho-drama. Knowledge of who the murderer is, sadly, becomes all-too evident because we can clearly recognise the eyes and face that lurk beneath that blood-spattered ski-mask, and since the film is famous for giving his identity away sooner rather than later, in order to move on to what is the main thrust of the plot, I have no compunction is detailing it here, either. Veteran character-actor, Cameron Mitchell, is actually very good at playing the obsessed Bob The Builder, seemingly going totally against type for those who knew him as Buck in TV's The High Chaparral but, in actual fact, conforming to movies that he made much earlier than, and then just after, Toolbox. Having portrayed something of a misogynistic lunatic in the now-classic and certainly trendsetting Blood And Black Lace from Mario Bava (1964), such a turn was not so unusual or out-of-character for the squinty, blue-eyed and leathery-faced performer who would make a career out of on-the-fringe roles in Westerns, thrillers and sleazy horrors. Mitchell would cement such exploitation-savvy treatments in the likes of The Swarm, the Marshak/McGowan mess that was Cataclysm (the one with the very misleading cover-art back in the early days of home video) and Greydon Clark's wacky proto-Predator SF/horror The Warning, opposite Martin Landau and Jack Palance. Bizarrely, he also provided the voice for Jesus Christ in Henry Koster's flamboyant adaptation of The Robe (see BD review). But, although remembered by most for his prolific appearances on TV in the seventies and eighties, he earned quite a sobriquet from gore and sleaze-fans with The Toolbox Murders. Pleasantly humming a tune as he kills, and then brandishing a lollipop at a trussed-up Laurie, the young woman he kidnaps - played by Pamelyn Ferdin, fresh out of Space Academy - it is clear that he is besotted with the giallo traits of many a fiend who had gone before him. Much of this stuff is actually improvised by Mitchell who had a habit of concocting character foibles and had even been known to ruin sound recordings with his own whistling, singing and muttering.

    But, one thing is for certain - he is the best thing about this movie. Everyone else is terrible, even by the often lamentable standards of low-budget horror/thrillers made during this period. The director's own brother, Tim, appears here as the cut-price detective on the case, and does his utmost to slow the already sleepy snail's pace of the film even further. Nicolas Beauvy is woeful as Laurie's brother, Joey - check out the moment when he drives off in their mother's car to do a spot of investigating of his own and forgets to shut the door properly - and then we have TV heartthrob Wesley Eure, star of the original (and unbelievably appalling) fantasy show Land Of The Lost, as the lunatic caretaker's nephew, who might just have a secret or two of his own up his sleeve. Conversations take place, threats are made and little clues and poignant flashbacks flutter about, but there is precious little atmosphere to be savoured.

    Oh, well ... at least we've got the violence to fall back on, eh?

    Whilst the film now looks terribly dated and almost unforgivably tame, it has to be put back into context. Back in 1977, we had just had The Hills Have Eyes and, prior to that, the most nightmarish movies had been Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Exorcist and Night Of The Living Dead. But they had all been somewhat fantastical in nature, overt in style and massive “must-see” experiences that truly pushed boundaries. Now The Toolbox Murders, with its country crooning and daft disco ballads, lollipop sucking, ridiculous familial developments and sort of matter-of-fact set-pieces, comes along and, incredibly, seems more akin to the following year's Dawn Of The Dead in terms of the almost comical approach it takes towards its atrocities than it does to the all out depravities of Wes Craven's The Last House On The Left, a movie that DiDio's is often lumped alongside. For one thing, we just don't care about the victims enough to be shocked. Nor do we hate the killer enough to thirst for his comeuppance. In this way the film is actually quite portentous. Whereas later psycho rampages like Halloween and Friday The 13th and their practically limitless ilk made absolutely no attempt to unravel the insanity of their killers, or even to unmask them - and you can thank Bava, Argento and Carpenter for that little addition - Toolbox completely ditches its aura of mystery very early on, reveals the big baddie and his sorry saga, and then sets about embroidering a weird and disturbing dysfunctional home motif that bumbles along quite sedately throughout the rest of the film. Thus, the plot is concerned not with who is responsible for the crimes, but why they are doing it. The crazy and, admittedly, clever, thing is that we grow to like the guy ... after a fashion. His motifs are flawed, his methods totally out of order, but Mitchell imbues his mad handyman with considerably more personality than you might expect. The likes of Hannibal Lecter would go on to take this sympathetic charisma to its ultimate extreme, of course, but the germ of such polite barbarism is sown here. So, you've got to give it some credit for that.

    But there is no escaping the fact that here was a miniscule-budgeted movie that was relying upon shock tactics and a purely in-yer-face sex 'n' violence marketing campaign - that original poster pulls absolutely no punches, does it? - and was one that knew, all along, that it was going to go off in a different direction once it had suckered you in. Easter and Kindberg just had no idea at all of how to construct a tense narrative, though, and you can feel the suspense slipping through their fingers almost from the get-go. And Donnelly's direction is no more, ahem, rivetting than an episode of Riverside Cottage. And we need look no further than its most gratuitous sequence. The film is rightly infamous for its graphic nail-gun execution, which also incorporated some protracted bath-tub masturbation, full-frontal nudity and then the presentation of the naked woman begging for her life and offering whatever the killer wants in order to save herself. But it just has to be a shame that this celebrated sequence is watched for nothing more than mere sensational exploitation which, although obviously intended that way all along, has none of the expert shock or horror element that such a raw scene deserves. Janet Leigh's vicious despatching in Psycho carries a massive amount more clout in its thought-provoking arousal and extreme ferocity, for instance, and yet it shows us precisely nothing. Of course, the easy filmic fallback of placing a jiggling nudie in severe jeopardy has now gone on to almost ludicrous extremes as evidenced by the likes of the laughable motel/hooker scene in the remake of My Bloody Valentine and even the similar moment in Rob Zombie's Halloween II (both BD's reviewed separately). But Donnelly makes a hash of things with such pedestrian direction that we are just left willing for the girl to be slain, rather than urging her to fight back and make a break for it. That Marianne Walker does, in actual fact, attempt to do both things - hurling a vase with genuine gusto and making Mitchell shrink back in shock, as well as running frantically around her apartment in the buff - is down to her own milking of the part and not thanks to a director who knows how to generate suspense. All the kills are so mundanely orchestrated that, if it wasn't for the bare flesh and the odd spurt of blood, you'd think you were watching an episode of CHiPs.

    Unsurprisingly, Dennis Donnelly has only ever done TV work since, his staid approach to even the most harrowing of elements in The Toolbox Murders betraying a lack of confidence and no zest whatsoever, which doesn't do a film like this any justice at all.

    Image-wise, he almost gets it right, too. Having his poster-boy killer sporting that frighteningly thuggish balaclava was also something of a throwback to Sergio Martino's carnage-rife Torso and Dirty Harry's Scorpio as well as evoking memories of Britain's own loopy kidnapper, The Black Panther, as seen in the film of the same name, from only the year before Toolbox, with Donald Sumpter donning the face-mask and running away with innocent young girls. But the lethargic manner in which he offs the women is hardly thrill-a-minute stuff and if the toolbox murders, themselves, lack impact, then the film can hardly be redeemed with the scrambled sermonising of a bound and gagged captive. Unfairly vilified, then, but just as unfairly touted as being something that it plainly isn't - any good, that is.

    The Toolbox Murders

    Can we fix it?

    No, we can't!



    The Rundown


    6
    AVForumsSCORE
    OUT OF
    10
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