Toolbox Murders (2004)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #394


Number of Views: Two
Release Date: March 19, 2004
Sub-Genre: Slasher/Supernatural
Country of Origin: United States
Running Time: 95 minutes
Director: Tobe Hooper
Producers: Tony DiDio, Gary LaPoten, Terence S. Potter, Jacqueline Quella
Screenplay: Jace Anderson, Adam Gierasch
Based on The Toolbox Murders by Ann Kindberg, Robert Easter, and Neva Friedenn
Special Effects: Justin Apone
Cinematography: Steve Yedlin
Score: Joseph Conlan
Editing: Andrew Cohen
Studios: Alpine Pictures, Scary Movies LLC, Toolbox Murders, Inc.
Distributors: Lionsgate Films, Columbia TriStar Film Distribution International , Paramount Home Entertainment
Stars: Brent Roam, Angela Bettis, Juliet Landau, Rance Howard, Marco Rodriguez, Adam Gierasch, Greg Travis, Christopher Doyle, Adam Weisman, Christina Venuti, Sara Downing, Jamison Reeves, Stephanie Silverman, Alan Polonsky, Charlie Paulson, Eric Ladin, Sheri Moon Zombie, Price Carson, Carlease Burke, Bob McMinn, Ralph Morris


Suggested Audio Candy

The Eagles “Hotel California”

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In 1974, Tobe Hooper broke the mould. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was easily one of the most influential films of the seventies and also one of the most mentally draining. Its influence was visible in many of the grindhouse flicks doing the rounds towards the end of the decade and, to this day, it is still regarded as the grand daddy of exploitation cinema and quite rightly. Despite its flagrant superiority, Hooper’s career has been decidedly checkered from that point on. While Poltergeist and the made-for-TV Salem’s Lot enjoyed global recognition and admirable efforts such as Eaten Alive aka Death Trap, The Funhouse, and Lifeforce, have shown glimmers of his colossal aptitude for terror, there have been sidesteps and foibles aplenty also.


When I first learned that Hooper was set to update Dennis Donnelly’s par-for-the-course 1978 exploitation feature The Toolbox Murders I was just glad to have him back after a particularly lean period. He had been working largely on TV fodder for the past decade and was due a return to form so what better way than by reinvigorating an old forgotten drive-in favorite with new age sensibilities? On the other hand, I was more used to Hooper’s work inspiring a slew of copycats and not vice versa. It wasn’t as though he had anything to prove in this area other than maybe that he still had what it took. This project just felt a little safe to me but, by the same token, I was enthused to see what tools Tobe would bring to the table 25-years on.


It is worth noting, from the offset, that Toolbox Murders was plagued by problems which drastically altered the end product. Once financing dissolved two-thirds of the way through principal shooting, the entire production went into the shit-can, forcing him to prematurely splice what footage he already had together haphazardly in a frantic attempt to recoup any significant losses. Essentially, the final cut is something of a hotchpotch and suffers all manner of lapses in cohesion and unevenness of tone. Having said such, the original hardly struck any real tonal balance so I guess, in some small manner, there’s your continuity right there.


It would be mean-spirited to be damning of a piece of art which had no divine right being completed in the first place. Hooper’s persistence alone made this happen and he even supplied his own toolbox from home which shows his dedication to rescuing the project from obscurity. The result is a film which is miraculous through its very existence and one which proves that he can still affect an audience to the best of his abilities all these years on. Its forerunner had been released before the slasher genre had been codified and ended up veering more towards crime thriller than anything else. Here, Tobe infuses events with a supernatural flavor and that instantly sets it apart from the original film.


It focuses on young newlyweds, intern Steven (Brent Roam) and teacher Nell (Angela Bettis) as they relocate to a “renovation special” apartment complex in Los Angeles to commence their new life together. The Lusman Arms offers two months rent free with a good reason, that being the fact that you’ll unlikely last a week on account of a spiteful presence which lurks menacingly between the fixtures and fittings. At first it appears as though the height of the couple’s concerns will be some questionable wiring and plumbing, along with a possessed elevator and walls thin enough to fart a hole through. Thankfully there’s a handyman on-call 24/7 and he has all the instruments required to stop folk bleating on about upkeep.


Our very first scalp comes courtesy of Sheri Moon-Zombie and that is quite the tool to bargain with. Meanwhile, Bettis (May, The Woman) has proven herself on numerous occasions to be a most adept lead and here gives the usual excellent account of herself as the spirited Nell. Elsewhere the cast largely consist of red herrings and wander aimlessly like moths to the flame as Nell attempts to piece together the mystery of this ominous build. Interestingly, Christian Bale was desperate to play the role of Steven and even sent screen-tests to Hooper in an endeavor to swing his vote but the director chose against contacting him back. It would have been fascinating to see what he could have added, having already brandished his own tool in an admittedly more swanky locale during American Psycho. Alas, it was never to be.


Whereas Vance Kingsley was always the primary focus in Donnelly’s original, here it is undoubtedly the hotel’s infrastructure. It adds an extra level of mystery to proceedings to not break bread with our dispatch artist and instead he hangs back in the shadows while we learn the intricacies of the building’s architecture. When he decides to strike, sexual equality is now the order of the day, and the most horrendous atrocities actually happen to male characters. This in direct contrast to an original which had claims of misogyny leveled at it when really it just reveled in being a little perverse. Leatherface wasn’t choosy and neither is our Coffin Baby.


It would be all too easy to penalize Toolbox Murders for plot-holes and a few perished rafters. Any inconsistencies actually help its cause as its fragmented appeal lays in what your own mind is willing to conjure up when filling in the excusable gaps in narrative. Where it does come up a little short is in the tension department as Hooper knows precisely how to encourage us out of our skin and here it just isn’t pulled quite taut enough. Having said that, it is undoubtedly a more accomplished piece of work than its predecessor, despite never actually being completed as planned. Maybe Hooper’s best bet would have been to trim any excess, give us two-thirds, and package it with the opening half hour of the original. Now that would be my kind of D.I.Y.


Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10

Grue Factor: 4/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers: Like the toolbox in question the kills are a decidedly mixed bag. Just as you’re scratching your head over a seemingly wasteful bloodless kill; you’re slapped in the face by a victim getting the Casino treatment via way of bench-mounted vice. Now that is thinking outside of the box. Keeper’s standout would unquestionably be a gloriously lingering buzz-saw head dissection à la Intruder which hits you with the force of a 20 lb splitting maul at the tail end of one particular slender spell. The old dog’s still got it and Justin Apone’s effects match his ambition stride for bloody stride without resorting to CGI. Hail the lord for all things practical.

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Read The Toolbox Murders (1978) Appraisal

Read The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) Appraisal

Read The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 Appraisal

Read Poltergeist Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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