Dir: Dennis Donnelly
Writer: Robert Easter & Ann N. Kindberg
Starring: Cameron Mitchell, Pamelyn Ferdin, Welsey Eure, Nicolas Beauvy. Tim Donnelly, Aneta Corsaut, Marianne Walter.
Running Time: 94 minutes
WARNING THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SERIOUS SPOILERS!!!
Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) started it, the ‘title tells all’ variety of what Kim Newman in his book Nightmare Movies called the “multi implement massacre movie.” Further entries in this sub genre included Abel Ferrara’s The Driller Killer (1979) and Nail Gun Massacre (1986), but before these came along, producer Tony Didio pre-empted them all when he hit on a simple idea: why restrict yourself to one implement? Why not put the entire box at your disposal…and The Toolbox Murders was born.
A masked assailant breaks into a woman’s apartment and kills her with an electric drill, quickly followed by her friend who is murdered with a claw hammer after she stumbles in on the event and a third dispatched with a screwdriver. When the other tenants discover the gruesome scene, the police are called in and begin an investigation, but this doesn’t prevent the killer from striking again, killing another woman in the same apartment block with a nail gun before abducting Laurie (Pamelyn Ferdin), a 15 year old girl from one of the neighbouring homes. Laurie’s brother Joey (Nicolas Beauvy) is questioned by the police, but when they seem more interested in trying to establish him as a suspect in the killings, he starts to look for her himself. He is soon joined in his search by Kent (Wesley Eure), a friend whose cousin died in car wreck some months earlier. What Joey doesn’t know is that Vance (Cameron Mitchell), Kent’s uncle and the apartment superintendent is the killer and has abducted Laurie as a replacement for his daughter Cathy, the one killed in the car crash, and Kent is aware of this.
The Toolbox Murders is a very lopsided movie. All the killings occur within the first thirty minutes after which things are fairly quiet and low key, but that initial third proved quite antagonistic for the violence against women lobby, presenting some of the most contentious material of any film from the late seventies. All the victims are female, all appear meek and helpless and there is a clear sexual component in several of the murders, nowhere more so than in the murder of Marianne Walter, the actress who would later find fame as a porn star under the name Kelly Nichols. During her famous death by nail gun in which she is chased naked around the apartment after the killer walks in on her masturbating in the bathtub, she even attempts to be seductively compliant with her attacker when cornered on the bed before finally being shot through the head while frontally nude. When the film was shown in UK cinemas back in 1979, the blending of sex and violence in this sequence prompted the censor to reach for the scissors inflicting major cuts (It was again censored for the most recent DVD release).
When it comes to slasher films like this, accusations of misogyny are often misplaced, but even though Walter herself in an interview (included on Blue Underground’s DVD) claims to be amused by such accusations saying it is Stephen King’s favourite death scene, there is an undeniably prurient edge to this particular sequence. The justification for the killings – Vance believes he is on a mission from God to punish sinful women – is a little spurious considering the gloating detail they are shown in, but it does suggest that The Toolbox Murders did point the way forward to Lucio Fulci’s notorious The New York Ripper (1982) which used a similar plot device to excuse its misogynistic excesses. The outrageousness of these murders does serve to distract the viewer from the fact that Dennis Donnelly’s direction is fairly flat, but as the film progresses this woodenness becomes all too evident. If it weren’t for the scenes of strong violence, the film is so nondescript it would be indistinguishable from a TV movie from the period.
Unlike many of the slasher films that followed it, The Toolbox Murders is shot through with a real sense of nihilism stemming largely from an unbelievably downbeat conclusion. Joey discovers that Vance is the one responsible for the murders after finding his toolbox, but before he can tell the police he is doused in petrol and burned alive by Kent who is just as deranged as his uncle. Kent then kills Vance after telling him that he and Cathy were having sex and frees Laurie, but rather than let her go home he rapes her, forcing Laurie to stab him with a pair of scissor in order to escape, wandering away aimlessly in a state of shock as the credits roll. The performances aren’t bad and Mitchell is effectively creepy as the disturbed killer, but films like this are more concerned with delivering unsettling sleaze than anything nuanced, and in that respect it succeeds completely.
In 2003, Tobe Hooper directed a surprise remake for the original film’s producer. This new version entitled simply Toolbox Murders lacked aforementioned misogyny of the original film, and actually owes more to several films in Hooper’s own back catalogue, particularly The Funhouse (1981). It’s nothing spectacular but worth a look.
And the 2nd assistant cameraman is credited to Catherine Coulson, better known as “The Log Lady” from David Lynch’s cult TV series TWIN PEAKS.