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The Occult Torture Porn of Tobe Hooper’s Toolbox Murders

Tobe Hooper wasn’t always one of my favorite directors. Sure, Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) has been a sacred object since I first saw it as a teenager, and I certainly enjoyed most else I’d seen from him, but it all felt weak compared to his savage 1974 film. There was a time when I’d even thought that the power present in that film was an accident, beginner’s luck. I was a fool and I’m here to shamefully admit it in a public forum. I didn’t start to reappraise him until I’d seen Toolbox Murders (2004), which I hadn’t intended to watch at all. When it came out I thought it was sad that Tobe was doing a straight-to-video remake of a movie that was cashing in on the success of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. How humiliating! After years of TV work, the edges had been sanded off of his films; it’s hard to deny that he’d strayed from what made his work so thrilling. At his best he was unpredictable and unexplainable, films of unbound chaos that never lull you into anything close to a sense of security. His output from the 90s, as much as I love it, could be goofy and unfocused – the opposite of unpredictable and unexplainable. Toolbox Murders, however, is explicitly brutal and repulsive in a way that Hooper hadn’t attempted since the early 80s.

I managed a video store for many years and a constant hustle that people would run was the old “this movie wouldn’t work, let me get another movie for free” trick. If the disc in question looked like it was in good shape then I’d put it on for a few minutes to check the claim; one such disc was Toolbox Murders. I popped it in and let it run for a few minutes, not expecting to get sucked in, but the look of it was sickening – dingy greens reflected through streaks of rain and illuminated by florescent overheads that couldn’t wipe away the shadows in every corner. 

Within moments a baklava wearing murderer bursts through a door to bury a hammer in Sherri Moon Zombie’s face. It’s more than a jump scare. Jump scares are supposed to be fun, but Hooper robs that from us by taking the violence into a place of cruel sadism without flinching. From there we’re treated to ugly mayhem that never explains itself and keeps us guessing throughout. I was haunted and hooked! 

The plot revolves around the fictional Lunsman Arms apartment building and its bizarre history. Lunsman Arms was supposedly designed by a decadent occultist and during its construction many workers died. Initially attracting socialites and Hollywood stars, the building eventually fell from grace and into disrepair while its secrets remained hidden, only hinted at by the dark symbols engraved throughout the grounds. Once the current caretakers began renovations to fix the ageing building, something is awakened and gruesome murders start to occur. Despite the rich backstory of the building and the murderer within it, the horror is more existential and isn’t cleanly explained; think of J.G. Ballard’s High Rise reimagined as an LA slasher film. The inhabitants are a cross section of bad neighbors, weirdos, and players on the fringes of the entertainment industry, but the narrative centers on Nell, a teacher played by Angela Bettis, and Steven, a medical student played by Brent Roam, who are both new to LA. Steven spends a lot of time in school and work, leaving poor Nell to deal with the neighbors, crumbling building, and inattentive staff. As you might expect Steven dismisses many of Nell’s reasonable protests. Once her jogging buddy that lives down the hall goes missing, Nell is left to figure out her whereabouts all on her own, uncovering all the darkness hiding within the walls. Rance Howard, Juliet Landau, Marco Rodríguez, Adam Gierasch (who also co-wrote the film), and Greg Travis are a few of the entertaining cast members that find themselves in peril throughout the film. Some of the gory murders include buzz-saw to the skull, lime to the face, and, of course, someone is nail-gunned to the wall. 

The horror trend that never seems to go away is remakes; the early 2000s saw a fresh outbreak of them after the financial success of the Platinum Dunes produced Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003). Although there were some interesting films coming out at that time, it was a rough moment for horror fans. Hollywood had yet to deal with the leather duster jacket fashion of The Matrix (1999). Ten years after The Crow (1994) and the heroes of Van Helsing, Hellboy, The Punisher, and Blade Trinity (all 2004) were still dressed like 42nd Street flashers. Certainly a film of its era, the killer in Toolbox Murders (credited as “Coffin Baby” and played by Christopher Doyle) wears the duster well, looking like a deadly Darkman. There’s also a nu-metal end credits song by a band called Shithead, so listen out for that, I guess. Shot by Steve Yedlin, regular cinematographer for Rian Johnson (which means that he was cinematographer for Star Wars: The Last Jedi [2017] and last year’s Knives Out), the look of film reminds me of what Takeshi Miike was doing at the time and places it as an early entry in the “torture porn” subgenre. Maybe Se7en (1995) and Audition (1999) were the parents of the subgenre, but certainly Texas Chainsaw Massacre was the grandfather and everybody knows that grandpa’s the best. 

In 1978 producer Tony DiDio made The Toolbox Murders; the title as well as the fictional “based on a true story” claim are both directly inspired by Hooper’s 1974 film. Then in 2004 DiDio hired Hooper to remake The Toolbox Murders based on the renewed interest in him after the Chainsaw remake. The original film is a nasty little slasher that floats by on its own bad vibes, but outside of a few key elements (namely killing people with tools) it bears little resemblance to the 2004 version. The remake did well enough to earn a sequel, but critics were not impressed with the results, not bothering to view it as a continuation of the themes Hooper had been playing with his whole career. When a filmmaker produces a distinguishable film despite clear restraints like budget, time, or difficult working conditions, it can highlight the distinct style of the director. Like a demo tape, their unique style might emerge in the absence of a lavish production. Toolbox Murders is a brutal, disorienting nightmare that exceeds expectations and delivers on the reputation Hooper earned at the beginning of his career. 

One of the things that never seems to be mentioned when discussing Tobe Hooper is the way that he creates disorienting spaces in nearly every one of his films. The house in Texas Chainsaw Massacre is filled with haunting folk art and behind any door could be corpses or maniacs; Sally has to literally burst through a window to escape. Not only is the titular location in The Funhouse (1981) filled with booby traps and hidden panels, it seems much larger on the inside than it does from the outside – it even has a basement! Poltergeist (1982) features one of the best examples, an entire other world exists within the home that swallows the house whole. The hotel in Eaten Alive (1976), the old house in Salem’s Lot (1979), the alien craft in Invaders From Mars (1986), the Sawyer’s carnival home in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986), these cursed spaces are intended to keep the audience guessing. Any time one of his characters finds themselves wandering around alone, there’s no telling what’s going to happen or where it’s going to come from. If it was a theme you hadn’t noticed before in Hooper’s work before, it’s made explicit in Toolbox Murders. As a Tobe Hooper cursed space Lunsman Arms can’t be topped, it’s filled with hidden panels, stairways to nowhere, plastic tarps hanging from the ceiling, torture chambers, and, of course, the walls are thin and you can hear the neighbors having sex and being murdered. Hooper even takes the opportunity to recreate a few shots from his previous films, the reveal of the creature in The Funhouse is almost identical to the one in Toolbox Murders, the heroine falling into a dark corridor recalls Stretch’s trouble in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, and the murderer’s lair adorned with strange art is a call back to the Sawyer home in the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  

Based, most likely, on both the Bradbury Building and the Cecil Hotel, two locations with strange backgrounds, Lunsman Arms is more than a cursed hotel, it’s a representation of the dark side of Los Angeles and, in turn, the film industry. The Bradbury Building is one of LA’s more famous structures, best known as a filming location for Blade Runner (1982). The legend goes that architect George Wyman consulted the ghost of his dead brother through a Ouija board when deciding to take the assignment in the 1890s. The fictional Jack Lunsman that designed the building in Toolbox Murders peppered the grounds with esoteric runes and was associated with famed LA occultist Jack Parsons. The notorious Cecil Hotel, however, is a more direct inspiration on the film (as well as the hotel in season five of American Horror Stories). The location of numerous grisly suicides and murders, the hotel was home to TWO serial killers, Richard Ramirez and Jack Unterweger, plus it was one of the last places where Elizabeth Short (the Black Dahlia) was seen alive. At one point in the film, a longtime resident of the building recalls a time when Short lived in the building. Since the release of Toolbox Murders, Cecil Hotel has seen even more mysterious activity in 2013 when haunting security footage emerged of student Elisa Lam on an elevator just before her death. These are the kind of gothic Los Angeles stories that directly informed the film. Tobe Hooper wasn’t from LA, he was a hippie from Texas back when they’d send hippies to jail just for being hippies. Eventually he would make LA his adopted home, but he didn’t fit in there, either. Maybe he never fit in anywhere. Too sensitive for Texas, too mellow for LA. Toolbox Murders is a Los Angeles film made by a man that had been burned by Hollywood time and time again, but knew it well enough to tell its ghost stories.

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About Klon Waldrip

Klon Waldrip is a father, illustrator, writer and zine publisher. As founder of the Ghastly Horror Society, he hosts movie trivia and shows films at the Flicker Theater in his hometown of Athens, GA. He's interviewed Rudy Ray Moore and spent the night in Hasil Adkins' trailer. Once a week he posts brief illustrated biographies of notable oddballs on Instagram (@klonj) and Facebook. Look for the next issue of his video store-themed zine, Late List, at klon.bigcartel.com along with zines about Basket Case, Poor Pretty Eddie and more.

One comment

  1. TOOLBOX MURDERS was primarily Tobe Hooper’s last great movie,as that film showed that Tobe still had it in him as a filmmaker.

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