Toolbox Murders, The (1978)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2008-06-21 07:25

Written by: Nava Friedenn, Robert Easter, Ann Kindberg
Directed by: Dennis Donnelly

Reviewed by: Brett G.

The 1970s was a decade notorious for raw, exploitative films that set out to shock audiences with their brutality and gore. Everyone knows the often-cited examples of such films: Last House on the Left, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and I Spit on Your Grave. A lesser known example (until it was brought back to consciousness with Tobe Hooper’s remake a few years ago) would be The Toolbox Murders, a gritty little affair that oozes a 70s penchant for all things exploitation. Like many films in the era, it preys upon the public fear of the killer that can live next door or even be someone you know.

The Toolbox Murders starts out with a bang, as we’re treated to several sequences of a masked killer brutally assaulting and murdering young women in an apartment complex. His instruments of death originate (appropriately enough) from a toolbox that houses everything from a hammer to a nail gun that the killer uses with deadly precision. We don’t even meet our protagonist of the film until about twenty minutes in, where we’re presented with Laurie, an average, seemingly innocent fifteen year old girl. However, she’s almost immediately abducted by the masked killer, leaving her brother and mother distraught.

It’s at this point that the film takes a bit of a turn, as the film doesn’t quite play out like you expect. Instead of continuing to show the killer’s reign of terror and playing out like a mystery, the film actually reveals his identity quite early (I won’t spoil it here, but the film makes it quite obvious if you’re paying attention). Furthermore, we learn of his sick and twisted intentions for Laurie, who is bound and gagged to his bed. If you’re expecting some sort of prolonged rape and/or torture, think again (and, perhaps, be a bit relieved if you’re not into that sort of thing). The rest of the film follows Laurie’s brother, Joey, and his friend, Kent, as they attempt to unravel the mystery of Laurie’s abduction. Along the way there are twists and turns, including a rather shocking and unsettling ending.

Despite its obvious exploitative roots, The Toolbox Murders only feels like one of those films for about the first 20-30 minutes. If you’re expecting a splatter-fest where young, nude girls meet their gruesome demise at the hands of a faceless, generic stalker, then you might end up being a little disappointed, as the bulk of the film is more concerned with the stalker’s psychology and motives for abducting Laurie. While I wouldn’t say it’s a full-on character study in the vein of Maniac, it does attempt to establish a compelling motive for such behavior. One of these motives involves the killer’s desire to maintain Laurie’s purity and innocence, something that his victims supposedly lacked. In an era marked by the arrival of feminism and sexual liberation, The Toolbox Murders presents a killer that especially shows distaste for the latter years before Mrs. Voorhees slashed her ways on to the screen. If Last House on the Left was concerned with the death of the innocent flower child era, The Toolbox Murders seems to be a reaction to the state of the (then modern) woman and unrestrained femininity, and this makes for a wonderful bit of subtext.

The film obviously has a strong thematic point, so you might be wondering if it plays out effectively. The answer is a bit of a mixed bag. For those first 20-30 minutes or so, director Dennis Donnelly employs some interesting editing techniques (including a depiction of a car accident during the credits that doesn’t make sense until the killer is revealed). The various murder scenes are also handled very well, as Donnelly doesn’t shy away from the brutality of the murders he’s depicting. Also, there are some interesting and incongruent musical choices during these murders that recall the use of music in Last House on the Left, as the sweet sounding country-western songs are totally discordant with the carnage on the screen. The bulk of the film isn’t nearly as interesting stylistically speaking, save for the rather thrilling final scenes. Among these final scenes are some quiet moments that are more unsettling than the mayhem that preceded them.

Simply put, The Toolbox Murders is everything you’d expect it to be for the first third of the film. The gore might not be enough to satiate the staunchest of gore-hounds, but it is rather blunt and brutal. The rest of the film chooses to be psychologically disturbing and unsettling with a story that engages a viewer just enough. While you might be a bit put off by the change in pace and tone, you should definitely stick with this one. If my recommendation isn’t strong enough, perhaps the fact that it was banned as one of the first “Video Nasties” in the U.K. after its release will entice you. While it’s certainly not perfect (parts of the middle act drag a bit, for example), The Toolbox Murders is a bit of buried treasure that routinely gets outshined by its aforementioned contemporaries.

Fortunately, genre fans in any country no longer have to worry about government censure, nor do they have to look too hard for The Toolbox Murders, as Blue Underground has released it uncut on an easy-to-find DVD that features an excellent anamorphic presentation and a clean, clear mono soundtrack. It also features a trailer, television and radio spots, and an interview with Marianne Walter, who reflects on her infamous death scene in the film. There’s also a commentary with producer Producer Tony DiDio, Director of Photography Gary Graver and Pamelyn Ferdin. Also, be sure not to confuse this with the aforementioned Hooper remake (which really has nothing in common with this one besides a similar looking killer that kills people in an apartment building). If anything, that’s a rental at best. As for this one? Buy it!

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