Monday, December 6, 2010

The Toolbox Murders (1978)

by Cameron “Can Barely Hammer A Nail In Straight” Ashley

I bought The Toolbox Murders on DVD when I lived in Japan and my copy was fucked. I took it back to the import DVD shop in Osaka and, in mangled Japanese and Australian-accented English, had to explain what the problem was. The staff asked me at what point the disc stuffed up, and I had to stand around awkwardly while three of them popped it on and fast-forwarded to a scene featuring a naked redheaded hottie who masturbates in the bathtub, finds a masked killer in her home, runs around completely nude and gets brutally nailgunned to death, all while a horrible country song called “Pretty Lady” warbles onward. My only solace was the fact that I still probably wasn’t the weirdest guy they served that day.

A fairly notorious number from 1978, The Toolbox Murders (not to be confused with Tobe Hooper’s whatever the fuck it was) is perhaps best remembered for its unflinchingly brutal opening act and the aforementioned naked turn of Marianne Walter, better known as Kelly Nichols, who found Hollywood so awful she turned to porn. Yeah. Hollywood was so bloody horrid she started making fuck films instead. Check out Legs McNeill and Jennifer Osborne’s The Other Hollywood: an Oral History of the Porn Film Industry for some pretty choice words from Kelly on the Hollywood system. What’s interesting to point out is that it was not this incredibly violent, twisted and weird movie that was the tipping point for her to fornicate on film--in fact she veritably gushes about her Toolbox experience in a new interview on the DVD (which, by the way, was replaced post-haste once Kelly’s bush froze onscreen in the DVD shop and refused, in its woolly glory, to budge). In this interview, all Kelly does is beam about how awesome everybody was onset and how chuffed she is that her death scene is Stephen King’s favourite slasher film death ever. Good for her.

Directed by Dennis Donnelly, The Toolbox Murders had a writing team of three--two of which were women. Ironic for all the cries of "Misogyny!" that were hurled at it. I’m actually dead curious to know how the scripting of this tonally schizo film, with its three wildly differing acts, was broken down by Neva Friedenn, Robert Easter and Ann Kindberg, as it’s this unique structure that’s the film’s real calling card, and whether you love it, hate it or are bored by it, you can’t deny that its makers actually produced something pretty unique in the genre. It’s almost like three separate movies crammed into a single narrative.

The Toolbox Murders also has occasional moments of deliberately disorientating editing (images freeze-framing while the soundtrack rolls on, quick furious cuts between current victims and a past fatality making a weird kind of Ouroboros of death) and the solid development of its central killer (something that subsequently got mostly lost in the slasher wave of the following decade, where lumbering faceless killer after lumbering faceless killer bored us with their diaphanous back stories and weapons-of-the-week).

After a bizarre opening sequence featuring our killer driving to the scene of his future crimes, intercut with the some religious fervour on the radio, the sound of a car crash, and flashing images of a dead girl (actually quite crucial plot-wise), we move to a fairly non-descript apartment building where it soon becomes clear that numerous hot chicks, and several not so hot, reside. One of the not-so-hot, clearly sloshed, opens her door to our killer, whom she recognises. She bitches at him for not turning up several days earlier to fix her problems (hey, lady, I’ve been waiting since February to get my doors fixed, so quit your whining) which isn’t such a terrific idea, as he pulls a power-drill from his ominous metal toolbox and gets the thing a-whirring. In a wonderful image, post-kill, the man pops a black ski mask on all skewiff, totally ruining any surprise of who this guy might actually be. But it’s such a cool shot--both eyes peering out through a single eyehole--who really cares? It’s obvious this will be no whodunit. In fact, it’s almost like an anti-giallo: all possible suspense and mystery over the killer’s identity gone in an instant. Humming creepily to himself, our killer heads off to the next apartment and the next with an assortment of tools and dispatches the female occupants with such lengthy cold brutality, it’s actually a bit of a shock when the carnage finally stops and the plot starts. Seriously, the first third of the film is pretty unrelenting stuff and you may well find yourself going, “Christ, is this going to be just ninety minutes of bad pseudo-snuff?” and you may begin to feel a little dirty at the sleaze that unfolds.

It’s okay though, because here comes our friend intrigue...our masked killer (pretty obviously identified as apartment block owner Vance Kingsley, played with absolute relish by the weirdly eye-browed Cameron Mitchell) quits his killing of these ageing drunken tramps and young exhibitionist sluts and kidnaps the young Laurie Ballard, played by Pamyln Ferdin, for reasons I’m not sure we should discuss for fear of ruining the film. Ferdin’s all right here. She’s all cutesy and smiley with her brother Joey (Nicholas Beauvy) and helps her barmaid mum and hits the books like all good young American girls should. But I have to digress again, though, sorry. It always amazes me, the strange little real-life titbits of our slasher film actors. Pamyln’s IMDB profile tells us that:

“On January 11, 2000, Pamelyn, a vigorous animal activist, faced up to six months in jail after being found guilty of carrying an elephant "bullhook" at an August 1999 protest of circus training methods. A bullhook is a wooden rod with a sharp hook that is jabbed into sensitive areas of the elephant to keep it fearful and manageable. She received 30 days.”

For the curious, here’s a bullhook:

That’s pretty messed up. I feel an animal rights activist slasher film coming on...

Anyhow, once Laurie is kidnapped, it falls to her brother Joey to play sleuth, as the cops...well. They’re pretty shit. Good guys and all, but man, Detective Jamison actually snaps at Joey when he suggests that this is possibly an inside job, even though it’s clearly established that there was no forced entry into the secured apartment block. Top work there, Detective. Joey, pretty correctly convinced that these cops couldn’t spot the deodorant cakes in a urinal, goes sleuth and here, in our second act...things drag.

The scenes with Jamison doing his job are just totally superfluous, considering he’s made pretty much an afterthought not long afterward. The scenes with Joey scoping out the crime scenes under the pretext of cleaning them with his bud, and Vance Kingsley’s nephew, Kent, aren’t terrible, but Beuvy’s such a charisma black-hole, he fails to add any life to the proceedings. I’m fine with the film slowing down after its surreal opening and long, brutal killing sequences, I even appreciate that we know who the killer is and the film refuses to insult us by pretending we don’t, but it’s pretty ho-hum stuff here.

Things do pick up, however, once Cameron Mitchell is allowed to take over and overact his way into slasher film fame. It’s a nice surprise to actually see a killer in one of these films actually stop slaughtering because his job is pretty much done and try and establish a bond, however deluded, with his victim. There’s also a great continuity gaffe here involving lollipops that change both size and colour, so look out for that.

The concluding twist is perhaps there to add some further nastiness to the film’s final moments and to make up for the fact that we know Mitchell’s the killer incredibly early on. It’s a suitably twisted idea, but really lacking in execution and again, is foreshadowed too obviously. I would’ve been happier if the story just continued to build upon Vance’s relationship with Laurie, and her increasing the manipulations of Vance’s delusions instead of things becoming nonsensical for the sake of a cheap “horror” pop. Having said that though, the film’s closing image is fairly striking, complete with an assurance that what we just witnessed was based on fact (it wasn’t).

At the end of the day, The Toolbox Murders is overall an interesting, fairly well thought out piece of trash, made without the aid of a slasher film cookie cutter. Sure, it’s stupid and ugly (what movie discussed here isn’t?) but was at least created with some effort and actual inspiration. This alone should see it put on your Bad Films to Watch list.


  1. Your eloquent ramblings have convinced me to give this one its overdue watch. Thanks, Cam - that's another one I owe you. And thanks for coining the phrase, "diaphanous back story." It sounds so much more elegant, more sensual, than the common, vulgar phrase, "plot hole."

  2. Cheers Matty.

    "Diaphonous" is actually my fave word. i use it wherever and whenever I can. unfortunately, it tends to stick out, so I don't use it as much as I'd check out Toolbox, however, it's more brainy than your average slasher. Not that that says much...

  3. Haha! Great stuff! I saw it at the pictures when it came out. It was a 'support' film but I can't remember what the main feature was at all!

  4. I had lunch with Neva Friedenn and some other Hollywood b-picture folks. Could not meet a nicer woman! You never can tell what's going on inside someone's imagination, can you?