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by Bill Gibron

7 Oct 2008

Throughout the years, there have been certain movies where hype has played a more significant role in its popularity and notoriety than the actual film itself. One such area where this occurs frequently is the horror genre. When it was released in 1974, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a major commercial success. But it also developed a reputation as being the goriest, most disgusting exercise in excess ever created. Anyone who has actually seen the film can attest to the fact that it’s rather tame by today’s effects standards and is more unsettling in tone than in its use of blood.

A few years later, a cheapo Italian horror film called Pieces, again about a chainsaw killer, sold itself to the public based on the tagline “it’s exactly what you think it is.” And true to its word, it was a repulsive exercise in human vivisection. Now another title long debated for its content and its context within society makes it to DVD. The subject of a report on 60 Minutes, numerous episodes of talk shows, and bans by British and other foreign markets, The Toolbox Murders boasts a title perfect for terrifying exploitation and a reputation as a grueling exercise in sleazy, demented cinema. But the question is, does this film earn its infamous status? Or is it all just propaganda?

An apartment complex in Southern California is hit by a string of gruesome murders. Each of the women is killed by a man in a ski mask wielding various tools: a hammer, a screwdriver, a drill, and most shockingly, a nail gun. Seemingly unconnected, the police are baffled. However, when a teenage girl is kidnapped, there is an entirely new mystery to solve: why was she taken, and does it have anything to do with the string of killings? The answer brings the apartment owner, his nephew, and the missing girl’s brother together in a showdown over who and most importantly why this all happened.

It is 1977. Producer Tony Didio is reading the Los Angeles Times when he notices that some three years after it first played in town, Tobe Hooper’s 1974 hit is back for a second, seemingly successful run. He contacts the distributor and Mr. Didio discovers that this genre classic is still earning untold sums of money. This fact compels him to try making one of his own. He gets in touch with a writing team he knows, hires out a print of the film, sits them down in a theater, and gives them one simple mandate: create a variation on this idea and movie. Thus The Toolbox Murders is born.

When it is released, it creates a sensation. Angry protests denounce its misogynistic view toward, the victimization, and the exploitation of women. Critics complain of its sleazy and graphic violence. Fans, in these innocent days before Dawn Of The Dead, Friday The 13th, and a bevy of other splatter films, relish the gore and makeup effects. Britain, long notorious for its banning of so called “video nasties,” makes The Toolbox Murders one of its lead offenders.

But then a funny thing happened. Time, that criminal to all “of the moment” material, took the film and shuttled it off into afterthought land. Once Jason and Freddie and their bastard kin took over the movie screens of the 1980s and ‘90s, The Toolbox Murders became a forgotten “classic,” and then merely forgotten. Video releases of the film extended its life for a while, but soon, just like many titles in a local or chain rental outlet, it became another silly, sloppy horror film. Sure, videotape undersold its visual style with lousy prints and cropped images, but just like most exploitation motion picture product, created to fill the market and make a buck, any significance or lasting appeal it had within the culture seemed gone once the final balance sheet was tallied. The film became buried and dismissed under a mound of knockoff maniac murder movies.

In many ways, The Toolbox Murders is a cut above (no pun intended) your average exploitation horror film. The cast here are all television and film veterans. Cameron Mitchell plays the apartment superintendent with a bad habit of murdering his tenants. Wesley Eure (Land of the Lost), Pamelyn Ferdin (too many TV and movie credits to mention), and Nicolas Beavy (The Cowboys) are the hapless teens caught in the middle of the carnage and chaos. They are all outstanding. First time film director Dennis Donnelly, another old pro from television, does a good job of creating mood and setting tone. He does rely a little too often on the made for television medium shot, but there are times when he opens the frame and creates interesting widescreen compositions. Even the special effects, for the mid-‘70s, are fairly good. While not overly bloody, the film does have several upsetting shots of gore, much more than other films from its time (like Chainsaw, or Halloween for that matter). Still, the jury remains out on this film. While it is effective, it is also bisected into almost two completely different stories. And there is a crucial scene that may, or may not, hold them together.

The first tale indeed revolves around the tool murders. We go through a good thirty minutes of stalking and slaying. No explanation, no exposition, just an over the credits set up followed by four gruesome killings. As they stand, they are par for the cryptic course. There is ample nudity (and even some sexual content, although it is only of the “self-loving” variety) and the prerequisite cat and mouse mechanics over where and when the killer will strike next. Donnelly even adds some weird sequences, like the masked maniac taking the victim out into the stairwell to kill her, only to bring the bloody body back into the apartment, to underscore the disturbed nature of what is taking place. But once the police begin their investigation, and Pamelyn Ferdin’s character (Laurie Ballard) is kidnapped, the film takes a more introspective, psychological thriller turn. And as stated before, it all rests on one key scene to hold it together. (Those who do not want to know more about the plot or the surprises may want to stop reading here and pick up the review in a couple of paragraphs).

The scene in question lasts over fourteen minutes and takes place in Cameron Mitchell’s home (his character’s name is Ben Kingsley). Some time before the killings, Ben lost a daughter in a car accident. The loss eats him up inside. So one night he goes on a murderous spree, slaughtering residents in the apartment complex he owns. When he returns the next evening to commit even more atrocities, he sees Laurie Ballard. Instead of harming her, he kidnaps Laurie and ties her up in his house. To Ben, Laurie is his long dead daughter, and he must protect her. He dresses her in frilly clothes and surrounds her with stuffed animals and dolls. After making her lunch one day, Ben sits on the bed and tells Laurie that he is doing to protect his “little girl,” including the murders of those “bad women” in the complex. Bound and gagged, Laurie can only sit in utter shock and silence as Ben pours out his heart, and his insane brain, in long soliloquies of pain and perversity over the loss of innocence and the death of his family.

Acting wise, Cameron Mitchell and Pamelyn Ferdin are excellent in the scene. Mitchell chews the scenery and then hits the film stock for a little more cinematic mastication. He is determined to sell the sequence as being an honest peek into a very disturbed mind. Pamelyn Ferdin, on the other hand, does a brilliant job of portraying silent terror using only her body language. The rigid manner in which she sits, the glazed and alarmed look in her eye, the single tear dripping down her cheek, underplays everything that Mitchell’s method is shooting into the ionosphere. The two competing styles create a consistent tone of realism to the scene, so that we begin to understand and sympathize with the characters. But the real question becomes this: do we buy it? Do we willingly throw away what we came to see—toolbox murders—for this new twisted tale of mental illness and psychological torture?

Unfortunately, the answer is a kinda sorta almost. Indeed, the last half of the film is an exercise in tension and unexpected plot turns, never once cheating or swaying from hinted at character motivation. In essence it’s a narrative bait and switch. You came to see naked women getting hacked up by a madman. Do you now want to stay around and watch the powerful acting and subtle suspense? They even hint at the theme of incest (not with Mitchell, thankfully) to further expand the psychological dimensions.

Indeed, if The Toolbox Murders has one major flaw, it is in the division between the gory slasher and neurotic thriller film. Imagine if, after the first few killings, Dr. Loomis and the rest of the cast actually caught Mike Myers and spent several minutes discussing Mr. Shape’s problems. Or what if, after a couple of campfire crushings, Jason decided to exorcise his internal demons to a group of captured campers, not with a machete, but with a monologue? Do we want our murder getting on our psychological mind games and visa versa? This is the quandary facing Toolbox. The first half is gruesome. The last half is unsettling. But they really are almost two different movies. Once the kidnapping occurs, there is no physical reference back to the initial murders. The last few killings are with fire, knives, and scissors, and even one of those occurs off screen.

It feels like the makers of the film are saying, “Okay, you got your toolbox killings, we roped you in…now sit back because it’s time for the real story.” And it all begins with the scene between Ben and Laurie. It is at this moment where you as an audience member will either stay with the film (this reviewer sheepishly did) or decide you have been had. If you accept it, you’ll be rewarded with a satisfying, startling conclusion. If you don’t, the last forty minutes of the film will drone on and on.

by Rob Horning

7 Oct 2008

I stopped getting the Sunday New York Times several months ago, mainly because having Sunday Styles in my apartment made me feel gross. The news is depressing enough and it’s far too easy to be cynical about the intelligence of Americans without being goaded by inane trend pieces, navel-gazing personal narratives, and painfully earnest and hyperbolic fashion coverage. If I accidentally began reading anything in the section, I would become irrationally angry and start ranting as if someone cut me off in traffic or something. Other times I feel like the wounded Kyle McLaughlin in Blue Velvet and whine desperately, “Why are there things like Sunday Styles in the world?” Complaining about it only makes it worse, raising its profile and playing into its transparent effort to be talked about. The best thing to do would be to pretend it doesn’t exist.

Slate’s Jack Schafer notes that the section exists to “advance the bogus” but even he couldn’t tolerate this especially idiotic Sunday Styles story by Abby Ellin about straight single guys who own cats, an article which includes this priceless data point: “Many women agree that guys with cats are extra special.”

(I wish I could believe this article was written ironically, but nothing else that’s ever run in Sunday Styles justifies such a view.)

Schafer systematically demolishes the piece in an essay that’s reminiscent of an angry rock critic reviewing a piece-of-shit record track by track, spewing venom all over it. He’s particularly irritated by the use of the word seems as a crutch (one of my favorite tactics when I feel like making a speculative assertion with scanty support).

How can it be made to “seem” that the number of single, straight, male cat owners is increasing? By presenting the most anecdotal of evidence, which Ellin does. An executive at the Humane Society of New York alleges that “she had seen an increase in the number of single, straight men who are adopting cats.” Does the Humane Society of New York really determine the marital status and sexual orientation of cat adopters? If it does, I demand that a picket line be formed around its office now. If it doesn’t, I want the executive’s finding stricken from the record.

I found it suspicious that several of the anecdotes in the story involved people in the magazine industry, which suggests that what is represented as a citywide trend is most likely just a trend among Abby Ellin’s friends.

Of course, Abby Ellin is probably having the last laugh and will most likely have many more articles assigned to her, as this gem is currently the most emailed style story on the NYT website.

by David Pullar

7 Oct 2008

There’s a funny scene in P.G. Wodehouse’s classic Joy In The Morning, in which Bertie Wooster tries to find a copy of Spinoza in a bookshop.  On asking the bookshop employee, he’s met with blank incomprehension.

`You do not mean “The Spinning Wheel”?’

`No.’

`It would not be “The Poisoned Pin”?’

`It would not.’

`Or “With Gun and Camera in Little Known Borneo”?’ he queried, trying a long shot.
`Spinoza,’ I repeated firmly. That was my story, and I intended to stick to it.
He sighed a bit, like one who feels that the situation has got beyond him.

I think of this story a lot when dealing with the staff in bookshops.  To be honest, I’ve never had much use for them.  These days I’ve got a pretty good idea what I’m looking for in the way of books.  I’ve got my magazines and newspapers and websites that give me tips.  Sometimes I just want to browse and I’m pretty sure that I can read a blurb unaided.  I need someone to scan my selection and take my money, but that’s about the extent of it.

Sure, the presence of staff can help you out with identifying the location of a book—particularly something that’s difficult to classify.  Even this isn’t strictly necessary in some branches of Borders, with their library-style computer terminals.

Getting advice and recommendations, though, is another matter.  There are thousands and thousands of books in the world—who’s to say that the taste of a random person in a bookstore is anything like yours?  How can they be expected to be even aware of the kind of book you might be after?

For all that, I have a certain affection for the “Staff recommendations” that some shops attach on cardboard under the shelves.  At the very least, it’s interesting to see how they line up with my favourite books.  I get a small feeling of companionship with the staff when I see a glowing referral for the works of Kazuo Ishiguro or Vikram Seth or Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex.

There’s an element of snobbery at work.  I’m inclined to think that I’m the expert when it comes to the kind of book that I’ll enjoy.  Maybe I’m underrating the taste and discernment of the average bookshop clerk.

My feeling of superiority did take a beating recently while in the George St, Sydney branch of Dymocks and was looking for the next volume of Proust’s In Search Of Lost Time.  Now, I never expected to get through the first volume and it sat unread on my shelves for five years.  The fact that I read it and enjoyed it still astonishes me.  I picture the kind of people who read and enjoy Proust as being grey-haired and wise-looking—English professors at the end of a long and distinguished career.

So picture my surprise when a young-looking employee with an American accent came up behind me and intoned, “Ahh, Marcel Proust.  That was my favourite volume.”

“Oh yeah?” I responded, only half processing what he had said to me.

“Yeah.  I really enjoyed the next one, The Guermantes Way, too but I thought it went downhill after that.  You know, he only edited the first couple of volumes in his lifetime.  The rest were done by his brother or something.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  A guy about my brother’s age had apparently read all the volumes of a gigantic work of French literature and had a favourite volume.

My friend Tim was unsurprised by this story.  He used to work at that very bookstore and said more than half of the staff were completing postgrad studies in literature.  Tim was the marketing student who read Robert Ludlum.

So maybe there’s a role for them after all, at least the staff who have read the later volumes of massive novels and can save you the trouble.

by Rob Horning

7 Oct 2008

With the federal government announcing that it will intervene in the commercial-paper market—the realm of short-term financing for businesses to maintain operations—Justin Fox links to NYT’s Floyd Norris fretting about all this rampant socialism. He makes a few logical leaps forward and concludes:

So we may soon have the government deciding which companies deserve short-term loans, and at what interest rates. Does this remind anyone else of central planning systems?

This would seem a legitimate fear, except that the government plays favorites with business sectors all the time. That’s how the housing crisis became so acute in the first place, because of the federal support for widespread homeownership that created a fertile field for financial shenanigans.

Central planning isn’t a matter of the commissars in the Politboro issuing five-year plans; it’s a matter of regulatory capture, of skewing the playing field with tax and trade policies and creating a system of crony capitalism. Dean Baker details some of the many recent ways conservatives advanced crony capitalism here; Jamie Galbraith’s The Predator State also looks at how free-market dogma masks the way plutocrats use government to loot the economy. Thomas Frank’s new book explores the theme as well.

But the government’s move to buy commercial paper remains problematic. The ultimate purpose seems to be to prevent credit from drying up for businesses that are otherwise creditworthy but can’t get funds from banks whose capital is tied up in cleaning up its other messes. It used to be that money markets would buy the paper, get a better yield than Treasurys, and pass along the better rate to mutual fund investors. But the chaos in the markets have made this too risky, particularly since the “buck was broken” by a prominent money-market fund last week—investors lost prinicpal in a money market fund. (Money market accounts seem like bank accounts, but they are not; when the buck is broke, in effect it’s as though someone else is withdrawing funds from your savings account.)

The banks themselves can’t get funding, because investors are frightened by the losses creditors suffered in the big-time failures we’ve already witnessed.  Justin Fox explains:

What’s been causing the various bank scares and failures of recent weeks has been an increasing unwillingness of anybody to extend these kinds of loans to banks. An at least partially rational unwillingness, given that senior unsecured creditors took big hits in both the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy and the seizure of Washington Mutual by the FDIC. Now you might argue that this is a healthy capitalistic development, one that will make providers of such credit more discerning in the future. But there’s no way that a creditor could have discerned by looking at the balance sheets of the respective institutions that his money was in dramatically more danger at Lehman and Wamu than at Bear Stearns and Wachovia, where the government acted to protect creditors. It was purely a question of guessing what regulators would do, not weighing the risks of the financial institution.

That’s the problem caused by haphazard bailouts, but America has too many banks to for the government to secure them all, so the sense that lending to American banks in a guessing game will apparently continue, despite the $700 billion Treasury plan to suck up loser mortgage-related assets.

The NYT article about the Fed’s move notes the inevitable conflicts of interest—the Fed basically becomes an investor in markets rather than a market referee dictating the rules of the game. But without moves such as this, the Fed and the Treasury Department seem to fear there would be no game at all.

by Jason Gross

7 Oct 2008

Radiohead, Iron Maiden, Billy Bragg and Kate Nash wouldn’t seem to have much in common except their Brit connection but they’re banding together with Bryan Ferry, David Gilmore, the Verve and others to form Featured Artists’ Coalition, a collective that claims that it’ll empower musicians more by letting them keep control of their music- see this BBC article for more details.  In theory, it’s a great idea and the labels have to play nice (or appear to) and there is the idea that there’s strength in numbers.  But it’s another thing to put it into practice.  How much are all of these artists really going to band together (so to speak)?  They have different outlooks, interests, motivations and schedules so it’s hard to imagine that other than symbolically, they’d all stay on the same page.  I wish ‘em luck and hope that more artists join and maybe they could even come up with their own bill of rights for musicians.

But one guy who puts his modem (or high-speed) where his mouth is happens to be a novelty artist.  That’s the reason that some people might not take Weird Al seriously, especially when he jokes around all the time but he does take his career seriously.  That’s why he’s said in his MySpace blog that he’s putting out music whenever he feels like instead of holding back a bunch of tracks for an album.  Even he admits that his humor’s timely, tied to recent hits, so it only makes sense for him to just pop out songs when he things they’re ready- the most recent one is a bite on T.I.‘s hit “Whatever You Like.”

He’s hardly unique in doing this- garage/punk screamer Jay Reatrard did it recently himself as did Nine Inch Nails when they surprised everyone with two back-to-back albums recently too.  But few artists have made a point of doing it in the Net age that would and should ideally open up the idea of thinking of new, creative ways to put out music, including doing it more frequently, in different lengthed formats (singles, albums, EPs).  No doubt you’ll be seeing more of it and not just from a funny man like Al.

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