The Toolbox Murders (1978)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #393

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Number of Views: Two
Release Date: March 1978 (United States)
Sub-Genre: Exploitation
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $185,000
Running Time: 93 minutes
Director: Dennis Donnelly
Producer: Tony DiDio
Screenplay: Ann Kindberg, Robert Easter, Neva Friedenn
Special Effects: Edward Ternes
Cinematography: Gary Graver
Score: George Deaton
Editing: Nunzio Darpino
Studios: Cal-Am Productions, Tony DiDio Productions
Distributor: Cal-Am Artists
Stars: Cameron Mitchell, Wesley Eure, Tim Donnelly, Aneta Corsaut, Pamelyn Ferdin, Nicholas Beauvy, Faith McSwain, Marciee Drake, Kelly Nichols, Evelyn Guerrero, Don Diamond, Alisa Powell

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Suggested Audio Candy

George Deaton “The Toolbox Murders”

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The seventies were a great time for D.I.Y. killers. Leatherface first revved his chainsaw in Tobe Hooper’s infamous 1974 classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Dorothy Yates fired up her handheld drill a month later in Pete Walker’s Frightmare, inspiring a glut of sleazy exploitation films whereby home improvements were shelved in favor of slaughtering innocents with every last tool in the box. In 1978, with Halloween garnering universal acclaim, Dennis Donnelly got in on the act with the curiously titled The Toolbox Murders and, six years later, the film wound up on the DPP’s second compiled list of video nasties. While never actually prosecuted, it became notorious for its title alone prompting Hooper to give it a fresh lick of paint in 2004.


There can be no denying that Donnelly’s uneven thriller deserved a certain degree of the controversy it amassed on account of its title alone and, like Lucio Fulci’s The New York Ripper, the killer in question clearly had a preference for perforating those of the fairer sex. Had it have been made a couple of years later then I’m assured it that its notoriety would have been more warranted as the boundaries were being pushed that much farther by that point. However, American film-makers were still testing the ground in the late seventies and The Toolbox Murders was not nearly as monumental when it came to splatter as the name suggested.

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Having said that, it certainly knew how to hit the ground running. Almost all of the murders in question occurred within the opening act and one would be forgiven for expecting a vicious rollercoaster after the events of the first half hour. Plot is irrelevant and instead we are treated to a string of set-pieces whereby a psychopath donning a ski mask puts a number of different females, often in a state of undress, to task in a plethora of imaginative ways. Claw hammer, screwdriver, drill, and nail gun are given a run-out and we move swiftly from one scenario to the next with no sign of narrative development whatsoever.


That’s where The Toolbox Murders changes tact entirely and slackens the reins right up until the closing scenes. The tonal change is so drastic that it almost feels as though somebody has switched channels. Our handyman Vance Kingsley (the great Cameron Mitchell) is revealed to the audience in a more overt fashion; presumably while he returns his tools to their docking stations. We learn of the personal tragedy which befell him years earlier and also of his motivation for his vicious hate crimes. It’s all about the moral code; having first lost his daughter and then had his conservative values challenged repeatedly, Vance has grown weary of the decline of virtues and takes “do-it-yourself” a tad too literally.

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Perhaps the most interesting facet of a meandering middle act is the abduction of 15-year old Laurie Ballard (Pamelyn Ferdin). Laurie is unfortunate enough to resemble Vance’s dead daughter and, thus, is absconded as opposed to obliterated like every other moocher to that point. Their exchanges provide the backbone which keeps us invested although far too much frivolous exposition during this period harms the overall experience markedly. It is an interesting concept; Donnelly shoehorns all the dispatches into a decidedly downbeat first act and then shifts the tone on a sixpence, setting The Toolbox Murders apart from many of its contemporaries. However, Travis Bickle he isn’t and William Lustig’s Maniac afforded you far more insight into the decline of a frail human mind than this can ever muster.

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Now, call me a sicko and I shall offer two erected thumbs like Fonzie, but a film bearing the title The Toolbox Murders would have appealed considerably less had it been known as The Toolbox Abduction. I’m in it for sleaze and grue, not because I harbor a hatred of women, indeed I would have no complaints about being reincarnated as one in my next life. They simply make for more appealing victims and throw themselves into their doomed attempts at escape with a little more vim. Then you have seventies bush; what a glorious design that turned out to be and there’s a real growler here. At one point I must admit to searching Kelly Nichols’ hips for pantie string as her front grizzly almost did enough to earn itself a credit.


It may appear that Keeper is something of a slime himself and I hold my hands up that, where a film like The Toolbox Murders is concerned, I’m buying into that promise. It delivers generously for thirty minutes, and the nail gun scene is particularly well executed, but then it falters. As an experiment, it certainly shows Donnelly’s willingness to tamper with the formula, but it’s hard not to feel a little cheated after such a delectable entrée. Sadly, the planned 1986 sequel was never commissioned as that may have struck a more relatable balance. As it stands, it’s worth checking out, if only for the first thirty, so in that respect it encourages you to “do-it-yourself”. You want subtext? Well there you go.


Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 6/10

Grue Factor: 3/5

For The Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: Some fairly spiteful moments although Donnelly has always got a firm grip of his killer’s leash and much of the splatter is only shown via way of cut-aways and aftermath. Where he is most giving is his depiction of naked women in peril and other compromising positions. Bathtub masturbation and protracted nude bedroom show jumping complete with slo-mo tell their own tale here; I would imagine that Nunzio Darpino locked himself away in the editing suite for long periods at a time while he tinkered with his own toolbox.

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Read Toolbox Murders (2004) Appraisal

Read The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) Appraisal

Read The Driller Killer Appraisal

Read Maniac (1980) Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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