Review: Toolbox Murders 2 (2013)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #753

Also known as Coffin Baby
Number of Views: One
Release Date: August 4, 2015 (USA)
Sub-Genre: Extreme Exploitation
Country of Origin: United States
Running Time: 95 minutes
Director: Dean Jones
Producers: Starr Jones, Robert Diaz Leroy
Screenplay: Josh Edwards, Dean Jones
Special Effects: Cary Ayers, Kayla Jo Holland
Visual Effects: Adam Lima
Cinematography: David Bridges
Score: Terry Huud
Editing: Ryan Correll, Sherwood Jones, Christopher James Miller
Studio: Atlantic & Pacific Pictures
Distributor: Shout! Factory
Stars: Chauntal Lewis, Bruce Dern, Brian Krause, Clifton Powell, Ethan Phillips, Ron Chaney, Isabelle Fretheim, Kyle Morris, Christopher Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe IV, Allison Kyler, Whitney Anderson, Starr Jones

Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫

[1] Peter, Paul & Mary “If I Had a Hammer”

[2] Scorpions “Another Piece of Meat”

[3] Soundgarden “Rusty Cage”

[4] Nine Inch Nails “Hurt”

It seems most ironic that the motto for Dean Jones’ Toolbox Murders 2 was interpreted as an admission of guilt when his film reemerged in 2015. Originally released and ridiculed three years previously, under the title Coffin Baby, it had actually been in production for nigh-on a decade and altered drastically during that period. By the time it dared show its face again, trimmed back to the barest essentials and padded out with freshly shot footage, swooping critics already had their tools drawn to provide the film a thorough pummeling. Broken they said it was. Guess what? I’m about to beg to differ. You see, someone has to fight its corner and I’m only too happy to grab a wrench and balaclava for the cause.

Let’s not jerk the jack hammer here, I’m not about to suggest that certain areas of Toolbox Murders 2 aren’t sketchy to put it kindly. There are continuity errors galore, gaping chasms in its logic, and it’s like one big puzzle that attempts to solve itself but with insufficient parts to do so. Indeed, I’d imagine the three-man editing process to have been something of a logistical nightmare.

That said, forgive its inconsistencies and there’s still a chance you’ll wind up as happy as an otter in IKEA. Like the Swedish flat-pack conundrum kings, its maze is a somewhat thankless one to navigate, but the caféteria is open all hours and our chef (Christopher Doyle) just so happens to know precisely how to knock up some nice and spicy meatballs.

Granted, Coffin Baby’s hosting skills may be something less but up to snuff and he may have a tendency to over-season his dishes, but I hear that chargrilled human flesh tastes curiously similar to chicken and that’s your daily protein covered in one fell swoop. While I’m not exactly overjoyed at where he sources these fresh cuts, there can be no denying the sweet aromas drifting over from his kitchen.

Coffin Baby will not permit leaving the table until he is satisfied you’ve fed sufficiently, and even then, there’s precious little opportunity to stretch those legs and walk off any indigestion. You see, he has been known to be a little forceful when it comes to handing out invites, and taking no for an answer isn’t his strong suit.

Take his latest dinner guest for example. Poor Samantha Forrestor (Chauntal Lewis) has every right not to have much of an appetite right now, given that her sister has just been brutally murdered and the police have a grand total of no leads whatsoever as to the who, how and why of it all. Before she can even begin to process this disagreeable data, she’s been snatched and stashed at an unknown location that’s a far cry from 5-star accommodation. Tossed into a poky cell and promptly locked down with only a pot to piss in as company, Samantha hasn’t the faintest clue where the next meal is coming from, or indeed, whether it’s actually coming at all.

As you would imagine, there is only so long you can spend cooped up in a rusty cage before those walls begin closing in around you and, with conversations strictly on a one-way basis, she’s forced to find her own way of passing the time. As the audience, we know just as little as she does, and learn at same rate of knots, so we too feel imprisoned and hopeless. However, this is where things begin to get more flavorsome. Samantha may cycle through the regular motions of fear, anger, and despair pretty much right on cue, but she’s also not averse to a dash of doolally and known to stomp around her enclosure like a petulant kid who has just been harshly grounded.

Dare I say that the relationship between captor and captive is bizarrely endearing as Coffin Baby is only too happy to provide the popcorn for a rare treat but only if his subject is willing to sit through the matinée he has lovingly prepared for her benefit. However, just as it appears that the are in danger of bonding, he hacks off her hand at the wrist just to remind her who’s boss.

Even then, he’s thoughtful enough to fire up his blow torch and cauterize the wound. She’s even willing to overlook the fact that the gristle sizzling away in his frying pan has been carved straight from the bone of human quarry as survival instinct has well and truly kicked in by day 5 or so. Observing Samantha’s hinges gradually slacken is a fascination in itself and there’s a damn good reason for that.

Lewis is simply exceptional here, so much so, that every second spent pent-up in the pen alongside her is made to matter. Seldom has the entire burden of a film been so singular in its placement and the Californian actress shoulders it quite beautifully throughout, showcasing such a wide array of emotions without ever once coming across as insincere. Shamefully the critics failed to spot this when ravaging Toolbox Murders 2 and even singled her performance out as dire.

That sickens me to the pit of my stomach as her turn as Samantha single-handedly elevates this to an entirely different level than Jones has any right to stake claim to. Lewis actually had her hand amputated after a tragic road accident in 2009 and channels all the drive and determination that helped her overcome this setback into the character she portrays. That deserves recognition in my book.

More questionable is the token inclusion of Brian Krause (Sleepwalkers) as the detective hot on Coffin Baby’s trail as this entire sub-plot feels superfluous in the greater scheme of things and has no great bearing on the story. However, you have to admire Jones for landing not only Krause but also two-time Academy Award nominee Bruce Dern and his role as fellow caged animal Vance Henrickson, while brief, plays on a number of his key strengths exquisitely.

With Samantha’s sanity fast fading, Vance’s sermons become increasingly significant, and Dern’s inclusion therefore makes perfect sense to me. Predictably this too was disregarded as nothing more than a cheap marketing stunt to sell the movie and perhaps it is but, should this be so, then you can’t really gripe about his sales pitch. I mean, he’s Bruce fucking Dern right?

Toolbox Murders 2 has been accused of being an ordeal to sit through and, while I get that, does it have any pre-requisite to be anything other than uncomfortable viewing? Disorienting it may be, nauseating it most certainly is, but I object to the suggestion that it’s aimless, exploitative trash with no USP. Lewis is our USP, hers is the crazy glue that supplies the sum of its parts adhesive, and I found the result to be borderline compulsive.

This may not reflect in the overall score I award as the numerous flaws are impossible to discount, no matter how charitable I’m feeling. The fact remains that the overwhelming majority will find this film too inhospitable to entertain and I can only fight its corner so much. But where I come from, credit is given where due, and I see no lawful reason why Jones’ film should be declined such a basic privilege.

Seldom will I be quite so much in the minority as here as I’m quite aware how unanimously this film is despised and my refusal to stick the boot in will likely infuriate many whose Toolbox Murders 2 experience differed greatly from mine. However, I happen to possess something called my own opinion and refuse to tailor that just to keep up with the Joneses.

Had Tobe Hooper’s 2004 reimagining of Dennis Donnelly’s 1978 original been anything other than a bog-standard slasher, then perhaps I’d be less forgiving as Jones brings precious little new to the table and, while visually arresting, his film supplies virtually no context to all the on-screen savagery. But as for being utterly worthless, well beauty is in the eye of the beholder right?

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 6/10

Grue Factor: 5/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers: Jones previously worked on the effects for Hooper’s 2004 effort and this is one department where he cannot be held in contempt as the kills are some of the most barbarous ever to have snuck past the censors. Limbs are hacked, skin torched, bone carved through, heads lopped off, bodies sawed in half, and never once does the camera shy away from providing full and extensive coverage of the atrocities being committed.

Read The Toolbox Murders (1978) Appraisal
Read Toolbox Murders (2004) Appraisal
Read The Orphan Killer Appraisal
Read Murder Set Pieces Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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