The Toolbox Murders (2003) Review
As The Toolbox Murders begins, we’re treated to that time-honoured device - the title card. It informs us that thousands of hopefuls come to Hollywood every year, most of them leaving, while the rest...disappear. That’s a great prelude to the film ahead, yet the picture never manages to be anything more than cheap and cheerful exploitation. It conforms to those well-worn slasher conventions - one location, multiple victims, and a whole host of suspects (not to mention, the usual bevy of red-herrings). The location in question, is the Lusman Arms, a seedy apartment building with a colourful past. A former getaway for stars of the silver screen, it has since fallen into disrepair, and now provides a home for those seeking fame in the Hollywood hills. Which makes it the perfect place for a headline-grabbing killing spree, no?
Newlyweds Nell (Angela Bettis) and Steven Barrows (Brent Roam) have just moved into the complex, yet their timing was poor - it’s on the same night that a masked psycho begins offing the residents. After a series of strange events, the couple begin to put two-and-two together (but only after persistent screaming, and several “missing” tenants). In typical Dario Argento-fashion, Nell becomes the Lusman’s amateur sleuth, exploring the darkened corridors and recesses of the building to uncover the sinister truth. Is there something supernatural about the killer, and his hunting grounds? And who is committing the brutal crimes? She better hurry - the murderer has more tools than Black & Decker.
Will Tobe Hooper ever reclaim his grindhouse crown? The last two decades have shown a steady decline in his work, and not once has he scaled the heights set by his legendary debut. Whatever project he pursues, the shadow of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre proves impossible to escape, and even his 80’s “classic” Poltergeist barely counts (it’s debatable how much of that film was actually his, considering Spielberg’s tampering). For The Toolbox Murders, he’s on auto-pilot; cribbing from every slasher film possible, in a genre he helped to create in the first place. As horror aficionados know, the film is based on the infamous “video nasty” from the 70’s; a film so depraved, it was placed on the Director of Prosecutions’ list of banned titles. Dennis Donnelly’s film may have been extreme, but it was also first-rate trash. Hooper merely takes the title, and the killer’s bag of tricks, forming a respectable - if hugely flawed - slasher picture.
The movie opens well, promising some effective jolts. The obvious nod to Suspiria was welcome, as Rob Zombie’s former-muse Sherri Moon gets caught in a spot of torrential rain (the actress even resembles Jessica Harper here, with billowing trench coat and flowing locks). We follow her into the apartment building, as Hooper tries valiantly to set the mood. Yuda Acco’s production design helps to form much of the atmosphere, with a gritty texture required by any B-grade horror film - all dark interiors, sombre reds, and run-down architecture. We know what’s coming. Moon’s days are numbered. Stepping into her gloomy apartment, it’s only a matter of time before the clandestine baddy makes his move. Leaping out of the dark, he attacks her with a trusty hammer...the first of many “useful” implements.
And then, there’s the gore. Hooper is a director that likes it sloppy (witness his over-the-top grue in the first Chainsaw sequel), and the first kill sets a giddily violent tone. The blood really does splatter, helping to quench my thirst after the recent spate of PG-13 offerings. The screenplay by Adam Gierasch and Jace Anderson (who collaborated on Hooper’s woeful Crocodile), is pretty inventive in this respect; sparking memories of H.G. Lewis with its fun-house nature. Those looking for painful dismemberment have probably come to the right place, since Toolbox Murders pushed the R-rating as far as it could go (and Anchor Bay present it completely uncut here). In other words, the films title is appropriate.
My favourite sequence comes fairly early in the run-time, when the killer uses a nail-gun on a whacked-out hippie. He fires at her wildly, pinning her arms to the wall; the room acting as a makeshift crucifix. It’s an indelible visual - probably Hooper’s best since “a-girl-on-a-meathook”, and the character gets a pretty sudden death, with a nail to the throat. Later, the cops arrive on the scene, but don’t find her - the attacker has nailed the poor soul to the ceiling. After this, the film dips into the standard stalk n’ slash motif, with false scares, and well-timed jumps. Toolbox occasionally offers a nasty surprise (I loved the spinal cord getting snipped by bolt cutters - yeesh!), but the movie can’t escape its formulaic roots. The director attempts to bypass the clichés, but there’s a nagging sense of deja vu, that plagues much of the story.
Thankfully, the filmmakers have assembled a game cast, whose roots in cult cinema give Toolbox some extra mileage. Bettis is slowly becoming this generation’s “scream queen”, with roles in May and TV’s Carrie giving her some street cred on the underground circuit. She acquits herself well here, even if the screenplay fails to give her something meaty to play with. She sells fear and confusion well (especially during the moment her character pulls human teeth out of the apartment wall, in a shameless homage to Polanski’s The Tenant). Her character is typical of the genre - especially when she begins to investigate the strange goings-on - but Bettis is an engaging presence. Elsewhere, you might recognise the wonderful Juliet Landau (Buffy’s Drusilla), who drops the kooky act for once, and fits snugly into the role of the Lusman’s resident slut.
Yet, despite their efforts, The Toolbox Murders is largely a disappointment. The script tries hard to build momentum, but often meanders between each kill sequence; employing ineffective characterisation, and sloppy exposition. It’s focus also becomes blurred towards the end, as the killer is revealed as a supernatural entity (a revelation spoiled by Anchor Bay’s choice of box art). Such a device didn’t sit well with me, and it might have been more effective if the psycho was an Average Joe. This reliance on the supernatural derailed the Halloween series, and it turns The Toolbox Murders into a crude jamboree of blood and guts, scares and laughs. Intelligent audiences probably won’t make it to the “surprise” ending.
So, what of Hooper? By now, it’s clear that the startling terror of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was merely a fluke, and that his career probably won’t reach those heights again. But he makes a good fist of The Toolbox Murders, handling the low-budget with care, and giving the film some much-needed style. Horror fans will appreciate the grindhouse gore, and bleak tone, but there’s little here for anyone expecting the brilliance of Hooper’s former glory. This Toolbox is enjoyable, but a little rusty around the edges...
Anchor Bay once again treat a B-grade title to a first-rate “Special Edition”, awarding The Toolbox Murders with a two-disc set. It’s a fine effort, and currently the best edition on the market. The A/V is well-handled by the distributor, and they’ve supplied fans with some intriguing bonus material. So, what’s under the hood?
The Look and Sound
The budgetary restraints are pretty obvious on this anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer, but it’s still a solid job by AB. If you can look past the persistent grain, debris and defects, it’s a pleasing transfer. These faults are always apparent, but never distracting. The Lions Gate release in the US was pretty poor by comparison, with low detail, and a washed-out look. The colours here are stronger, with Steve Yedlin’s grim cinematography taking on some much-needed depth. It’s not an overly-sharp transfer, but presents the film in the best way possible.
Moving on, we get the usual audio options from AB, which are typically inconsistent. They provide a standard 2.0 track, alongside Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS. The latter was a waste of time - there’s none of the strength or variety attributed to studio tracks of this kind, and it’s wasted on Toolbox’s low-key origins; as it attempts to squeeze sound effects across the field. Yet, it’s mostly front-heavy. The 5.1 and Stereo tracks are more appropriate. Surround action is infrequent, but there are bouts of well-recorded carnage, with pumping music and ear-splitting screams. The tracks are above-average, with clear dialogue and incidental effects. I just wish that Anchor Bay would stop including poor DTS tracks just to sell a few more copies. It’s getting tiresome.
The Bay exceed in this area, and the extras here are well-worth a look.
Audio Commentary by Tobe Hooper and the Screenwriters
This is a great commentary, with oodles of insight and a high degree of good-natured joking. Hooper is a laid-back presence, highlighting why he agreed to do the project, and the style he wanted to adopt. Naturally, his horror heritage is raised, and it’s fun to hear his comments on the genre. Screenwriters Anderson and Gierasch are also good value, and there’s a friendly rapport between them. Fans will be well-served by this track.
Audio Commentary by producers Terry Potter and Jackie Quella
The second yack-track maintains the quality. In fact, this is more detailed, thanks to moderator Callum Waddell; a Scottish film critic. The producers are very vocal about the project in general, from getting the script right, to making it work. They also let slip their feelings on the original (which I wholeheartedly agree with). Working with Hooper is discussed too, and Waddell questions them throughout, offering a lot of fan-friendly factoids. An enjoyable audio essay.
The first disc also includes the theatrical trailer, some film notes, and several biographies for key members of cast and crew.
As you’d expect, this is a typical promotional piece, but it does have some worth, thanks to the sheer amount of behind-the-scenes footage. A sexy interviewer - I forget her name - wanders the set and questions some of the cast and crew, while Hooper busies himself with the latest scenes. Her enthusiasm is occasionally annoying (she calls the screenplay “amazing”), but she kept my interest. We get to see some of the key scenes being shot, and the make-up boys at work. An entertaining featurette, overall.
“The American Nightmare”
Boy, I love this documentary! Made by Adam Simon in 2000, it’s a renowned 73-minute jaunt through horror history, putting the classics into perspective. Highlighting the period in which they were made - the late 60’s to early 80’s - Simon casts a fascinating glance over their internal meaning, and their impact on American culture. It’s filled to the brim with footage from Night of the Living Dead, Last House on the Left, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Dawn of the Dead and Shivers; with plenty of real-life imagery to ram-home their importance. If that wasn’t enough, Simon has coaxed the key filmmakers for interviews - Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, George Romero, John Carpenter, and effects-legend Tom Savini. Even John Landis pops up at one point. “The American Nightmare” is a brilliant documentary, that doesn’t shy away from the grim truth. Horror fans shouldn’t miss this.
The set concludes with a small stills gallery, and an enclosed booklet documenting the Lusman Arms.
The Bottom Line
The Toolbox Murders is a fun time-waster. It’s a glimpse of the genre at its most basic, but the director makes up for its flaws with enthusiasm and buckets of blood. Fans of Hooper will call it a “return to form”, but I won’t make such claims. It is, however, his best work for years. Anchor Bay’s release is the strongest this film has seen to date, and for fans, it gets my recommendation.