[7 October 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
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.