Toolbox Murders (DVD)

Toolbox Murders (DVD)
Is it "riveting" enough to "screw" with your head, or does it just throw a "wrench" into the works?
Updated: 03-13-2005

It took a couple of years to become widely available, but finally Tobe Hooper’s throwback to old school horror, Toolbox Murders is out on DVD. The movie is a loose remake of a 1978 movie of the same name (which was actually a rip-off of Hooper’s seminal slasher, Texas Chainsaw Massacre), but the screenwriters didn’t even watch that movie before writing theirs at the director’s request.


The story takes place in the haunted old Hollywood apartment building known as the Lusman Arms. When renovations begin, it awakens and worries one of its oldest residents: A creature who must kill human beings in order to stay alive. Lucky for the creature, Nell (Angela Bettis) and her husband Stephen (Brent Roam) have just moved in.


As the couple unpacks and settles in, they meet the odd cast of characters who occupy the Lusman Arms. Ned (played by one of the screenwriters, Adam Gierasch) is the creepy maintenance man who peers at the world through long locks of black hair, like a male version of Samara from The Ring. The building’s manager, Luis (Marco Rodriguez), just wants to ignore all the trouble and cajole everyone into believing there is nothing wrong. Longtime resident, silver screen actor Chas Rooker (Rance Howard), knows the answer to the deadly riddle but he’s not going to give up his secrets easily. Saffron (Sara Downing) won’t stop singing loud, off-key folk songs, and the weight-obsessed Julia (Juliet Landau) is the only halfway normal person in the building.


As Nell hears stranger and stranger sounds emanating through the paper-thin walls — sounds that escalate to death-screams — she’s riveted by the mystery and decides to take matters into her own hands and find out exactly what’s going on.


Hooper has an exalted place in gory horror legend thanks to Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but since then he’s been hit-and-miss with fans. I’ve enjoyed quite a few of his television projects (Taken, The Apartment Complex, The Others TV series, etc.) but none of his latest movies have really seized me. After hearing about it for years and not seeing it come out, I was understandably skeptical about Toolbox Murders… but I slipped the DVD into the player with an open mind.


I’m relieved and pleased to report that Toolbox Murders is Hooper’s best work in years. It’s a truly tense, edgy, grim and taut tale of terror that unfolds little by little, revealing just enough information as is needed. The cinematography is a bit dark, but it does convey the dreary, damp look and feel of an old, neglected, spooky building. The acting is somewhat uneven, but mostly good — the Ned character is a standout, as is Chas, but they are wisely used just enough. Bettis is quite good as Nell, the tenacious tenant who insists that something is off-kilter in the building and sets out to prove it.


The tool-wielding killer, known as Coffin Baby (Chris Doyle) is reminiscent of the chortling murderer who appeared in Hooper’s The Funhouse (1981). He’s sufficiently creepy and, of course, brutal, merciless and indestructible. The best part about the movie is the tie-in with the building’s architecture and how Nell wrenches the black magic to save her life. (No spoilers here: This flick follows a tried-and-true horror formula.)


DVD extras include a highly entertaining commentary featuring Hooper and his screenwriting team (Gierasch, and Jace Anderson). They have a lot of little anecdotes, including a somewhat bizarre one about how Suspiria and the giallo genre was an influence on the script (I can see the giallo, but Suspiria is one of my favorite Dario Argento movies and I don’t smell even a whiff of it in Toolbox Murders) — and, they also fall into the dreaded “play-by-play” commentary trap from the time to time. But overall, it’s a good commentary that hardcore fans will relish.


The DVD also features 5-1/2 minutes of deleted scenes, most of which include so-called NC-17 footage. Personally, I have seen the same or worse in many R-rated films, but it’s good stuff and definitely would have added to the terror in the movie had they been left intact (even if the victims weren’t…). There’s also an interesting, very short, clip called Fearless Tales that shows Hooper onstage at a film festival explaining the concept of the "Coffin Baby."



Reviewed by Staci Layne Wilson

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