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Friday, October 12, 2012

The Toolbox Murders (1978) review


Cameron Mitchell (Vance Kingsley), Pamelyn Ferdin (Laurie Ballard), Wesley Eure (Kent Kingsley), Nicolas Beauvy (Joey Ballard), Tim Donnelly (Det. Jamison)

Directed by Dennis Donnelly

The Short Version: This $165,000 TEXAS CHAINSAW inspired trash classic loosely based on a true story is one of those movies that grows on you over the years. Once upon a time, this was one of those controversial 70s movies that was causing a huge stir during its release when TV programs and news shows were all aflutter over screen violence and misogyny. The opening 30 minutes is in a class all its own, but quickly deteriorates into a half-and-half police procedural and Hardy Boys Mystery combo with an occasional sprinkle of sleaze. It's quite well made for what it is, but most may be disappointed that the remaining hour never matches up to the opening reel or two. Still, that opening half delivers on the promise of the films title, which is ultimately responsible for the films everlasting notoriety.

***WARNING! This review contains an image of nudity***

Four women are viciously butchered at an apartment complex by a cold-blooded killer. A fifth girl, a young teenager, is kidnapped by the ski-masked toolbox murderer. Detective Jamison tries to locate the missing girl and find out who the killer is before he strikes again. Meanwhile, the girls older brother, Joey, does some investigating of his own.

A fair number of exploitation pictures from the 1970s established reputations for themselves because of their shocking content. Television director, Dennis Donnelly's (see photo at right for a director cameo) movie about a madman decked out in a ski mask murdering young women with the title toolbox implements had become something of a notorious title both here as well as abroad.

While it's a signature title amidst the catalog of cruel pictures to ooze their way onto theater screens during the 1970s, its legacy has diminished to a degree. In this day and age of SAW (2004) savagery and MTV style, rapidly edited horror-by-the-minute displays of brutality, mainstream horror audiences would likely, and quickly lose interest in Donnelly's movie about 30 minutes in.

The bulk of the horror occurs during this first 30 minutes, and, in my opinion, is still rather strong in execution. Ruthlessly stalking these girls unwittingly lying in wait for this psycho to snuff them out, these scenes are among the more misogynistic ever put onscreen.

Contrary to the post SCREAM mantra, some of the women fight back before being overpowered; it's not all stereotypical women cringing in fear before being callously killed off

Uncharacteristically, the first two victims are knocked unconscious then cold-bloodedly snuffed out, making the whole act feel even more sadistic. While this takes place, a smooth croonin' country tune, 'Carolina In the Morning' plays in the background. We also see one of these victims getting undressed offering up some gratuitous nudity prior to being slaughtered in a sequence designed to both titillate and build suspense. This sort of voyeuristic foreplay is disturbing to some for its prelude to often gruesome violence and ruffled a great many feathers back in the day. Since then, it's been done so many times (and to greater extremes), it has lost much of its power to shock; but retains most all of its sleazy salaciousness. 

Lastly, and most notoriously, a woman (Kelly Nichols, who later became an adult film star), masturbating in her bathtub, is terrorized and chased through her apartment till she's penetrated by a few nails fired from a nailgun. The last one is administered at point blank range in a despicable display of cruelty. This scene is also expertly shot and edited despite being the epitome of misogynism.

Again, country music plays in the background; this time it's a song titled 'Pretty Lady'. This scene was also the most troubling and notorious; which worked in the films favor. It also formulated the now familiar poster artwork, portions of which can be seen on its DVD cover. In addition, the bathtub/nailgun sequence was the subject of several daytime talk shows and nightly news programs reporting on the escalating violence in movies of the day. This sort of mainstream outcry would crop up once again in the late 1980s.

Another girl, a much younger one, is kidnapped that same night and held captive in the killers house for the rest of the movie. It's here where the psycho's motives are made somewhat clear. It's actually more of an excuse to allow Cameron Mitchell to chew the scenery (and suck on lollipops) for about an hour.

For horror fans, seeing Cameron Mitchell's name in the credits pretty much gives away just who he will be playing here considering where his career was at this point. He gives it his all as the lollipop sucking handyman who loves his toolbox and wallows in a lingering, detestable, Christianic hatred towards what he perceives as the immorality of the fairer sex.

The script doesn't go into much detail as to how Vance (Mitchell's kooky character) came to be like this. Instead, the film diverts its attention to a HARDY BOYS style investigative TV movie while Mitchell keeps Pamelyn Ferdin's character tied up in bed and tortures her with his rendition of "Motherless Child".

Mitchell of course, has been in hundreds of movies and television shows; arguably most famously in THE HIGH CHAPARRAL (1967-1971). His prosperous career mirrored that of John Carradine. Both men took jobs in several barrels full of trash and above average exploitation-horror pictures for many years before their deaths.

By the time the TOOLBOX conclusion rolls around, a shocker revelation rears its head with a plot device that was also used in a similar fashion in Wes Craven's underrated DEADLY BLESSING (1981) and much later in the overrated SCREAM (1996).

Fans of LAND OF THE LOST (1974-1977) will be shocked to see Wesley Eure in this movie. He had a very short career, and if nothing else, will forever be ensconced in nostalgia fans memories as Will Marshall from that popular Sid & Marty Krofft favorite. He also starred in C.H.O.M.P.S from 1979, a failed theatrical Bionic Dog movie that came at the end of AIPs brief flirtation with becoming a major studio before they sank under the weight of their some failed big budget endeavors.

The music score for Donnelly's movie is suitable, if noticeably subtle and Gary Graver's photographic touches are worthy of mention. Donnelly's direction is also surprisingly adept for this sort of material despite an occasional R rated TV movie ambiance at times. The commentary on the DVD (it's also available on Blu ray) is also highly recommended. It's chock full of wonderfully fascinating behind the scenes stories that you'll never get on movies made nowadays. The trailer is also a supreme case of the advertising promising more than what is actually delivered. Everything in it is in the film, it's just that the trailer comes off as if the picture is far more savage than it really is.

The original TOOLBOX MURDERS (a sort of remake from Tobe Hooper came out in 2004) is little more than a product of its time (dig all that product placement!), yet it's a choice and recommended 70s relic. It's lacking any of the rapid fire editing and splatter effects CGI'ed at the screen every few minutes in today's horror pictures, so it will fail in keeping modern audiences attention in that respect. Overshadowed by more popularly followed cult horror franchises, it's place in controversial horror history cannot be denied.

This review is representative of the Blue Underground DVD. 


Thomas Duke said...

We both posted Toolbox Murders reviews yesterday. Weird. I probably watched it for the 3rd time, and the opening and ending are still powerful in an uncomfortably sleazy way, so I can overlook the middle stuff a bit.

venoms5 said...

I saw that yesterday. I'll check it out shortly. I first saw the trailer for it on a tape for SCREAM BLOODY MURDER when I was a kid and just had to see it. It was on the VCI or VCII label? I forget. But anyways, I was a bit disappointed first time I saw it as I was expecting a more straightforward slasher style picture. I like it more now, though.

Greg Stuart Smith said...

Brian, I just watched this the other night for the first time and really, really liked/loved it. I am a huge fan of giallo, though, so the fact that it felt more like other gialli, what with its ample time spent explaining the maniac's motive for meting out death and gory destruction, is what I liked about it most. The American offshoot of the giallo, the slasher film, is often times much too simplistic for my liking, probably because I was not a huge slasher film geek when I was young - I became a horror fan later in life; this is not to suggest that to prefer the Euro-form is somehow more adult, high-brow or correct, not at all, only that the amateur detective narrative features much more prominently in those films, which predated the late-70's/early-to-mid-80's slasher genre over here in the states. I like the detective element. This film is much less complex than the giallo standard, though, since American film goers are more used to having the killer revealed early on or at least by the 3rd act. In giallo, the killer is often times not revealed until the final scene of the movie and serves as the abrupt climax with little or no resolution to speak of. Anyway, I'm glad the level of carnage didn't continue; even by today's standard, four women down within fourteen minutes has got to be the record. I was blown away by how fast the murders came and came and came! A great write up, my friend, even though I think I might value this one just slightly more than you!

venoms5 said...

Great post, Greg!

I definitely enjoyed it far more than I did when I first saw it, Greg. I also really enjoyed the soundtrack with its soothing country crooning tunes. The whole 70s look of the film is a plus, too.

I'm not the biggest giallo fan, but I do watch them. I have over two dozen I haven't watched yet, lol. I did review one a few weeks back that I was impressed with.

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