Inspired by the success of a rerelease of Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Toolbox Murders is a grimy and downbeat mix of giallo and psychodrama that predates the original wave of slasher films that followed in the wake of Halloween (1978).
The opening titles unfold over an unseen figure driving a car down a city street, briefly intercut with a flashback to a young woman (as it turns out, the killer’s daughter) dying in a car accident. Seconds after the credits finish playing we see the titular toolbox being pulled from the trunk of a car, in the hands of a mysterious figure who appears to be a handyman for an apartment complex. He then slaughters one woman with a drill, another with the claw end of a hammer, and a third with a screwdriver. After the bloody corpses are discovered the cops then step in to investigate. The next night a woman masturbates in a bubble bath before being literally nailed with another gizmo from the ol’ toolbox, scored like previous kills to a jaunty tune playing on the radio. This sequence, with its juxtaposition of eroticism and explicit violence, probably singlehandedly convinced the culturally self-righteous to slap the film on the video nasties list in 1980s UK.
The balaclava clad freak then kidnaps another woman, Laurie, and the film next shifts gear as it follows the police investigation, Laurie’s brother, and the kidnapping. Vance Kingsley (Cameron Mitchell), the apartment complex owner, is revealed as the killer and the kidnapper after about the halfway mark. Kingsley, who has never recovered from the the loss of his teenage daughter Kathy, is trying to transform Laurie into his dead daughter.
Toolbox Murders isn’t exactly stellar filmmaking (the shadow of the boom microphone is prominent in one scene, for example) but it begins with a bit of sleazy gusto before running out of gas. Mitchell’s crazed performance adds some interest, but the movie tends to be dull and unfocused for its middle third. It picks up a bit for a crazed ending, but apathy has long set in by that point. Though the introduction of a second bonus psycho adds interest, what works against the film is that it is shot with a flat esthetic that is similar to the way TV movies of the era were filmed.
However, credit has to be given for the attempt to study damaged male psyches. The movie is also reacting to urban paranoia from the serial killers of the time, including Ted Bundy, John Waye Gacy, and the Zodiac killer. As such, The Toolbox Murders drips with urban isolation, alienation, loneliness, and the repression of grief. The haunting final shot almost redeems the dull mid section. But despite the ending intertitle, there is no recorded evidence for the film actually being based on a true story.
The transfer on Blue Underground’s 4K disc is a 4K 16-Bit restoration from the uncut original negative. Given the low budget and the sketchy visual esthetic, this is probably as good as this film will ever look on home video. Colour, detail, texture, and film grain pop from the image. It’s a gorgeous visual presentation.
- Audio Commentary #1 with Tony DiDio (Producer), Gary Graver (Director of Photography) and Pamelyn Ferdin (who starred as Laurie) – In this highly informative track, the commentors relay a wealth of behind the scenes information and stories about the industry in general.
- Audio Commentary #2 with Film Historians Troy Howarth and Nathaniel Thompson – An engaging an insightful discussion of the film and its cultural and genre context.
- Drill Sergeant: Interview with Director Dennis Donnelly (20 mins) – Donnelly talks about how he got his start in the movie industry (he began as an Assistant Director on Hawaii Five-O), the origins of his involvement in the project, and
- Killer Reflections with Wesley Eure (27 mins) – Eure played Kent, the killer’s nephew, and gives an engaging chat about his experience on the production. (This feature is titled Tools of the Trade on the Featurettes menu.)
- Flesh And Blood: Interview with Actress Kelly Nichols (31 mins) – A funny and charming Nichols recounts her background in men’s magazines, as a makeup artist, and as an actress. One interesting tidbit was that Nichols doubled for Jessica Lange in the De Laurentiis remake of King Kong.
- I Got Nailed In The Toolbox Murders: Interview with Actress Marianne Walter (8 mins) – Walter plays the nail gun victim in what is reportedly Stephen King’s favourite slasher movie kill scene. Her interview here is brief but amusing.
- Slashback Memories: David Del Valle Remembers Cameron Mitchell (25 mins) – Film critic and historian Del Salle gives a retrospective and appreciation of Mitchell’s acting career.
- “They Know I Have Been Sad”: Video Essay by Film Historian Amanda Reyes and Filmmaker Chris O’Neill (19 mins) – An interesting analysis of the movie, well worth watching.
- Theatrical Trailer
- TV Spot
- Radio Spots
- Poster & Still Gallery
Blue Underground have done a stellar job on restoring this grimy and notorious little shocker, creating yet another package that is a must have for afficionados of low budget exploitation.