If Judge David Johnson had to be dispatched by a homicidal maniac, a power drill through the back of his head would not be one of his approved methods. Just to clear up on any confusion.
If you lived here, you would be dead by now.
Tobe Hooper returns to the director's chair with this old-school slasher pic about the dark secrets of a sinister apartment building, and the mysterious resident who has found new and exciting uses for power tools.
Facts of the Case
The Barrows, Nell (Angela Bettis) and Stephen (Brett Roam), are a young married couple, just moving into a new apartment in the infamous Lusman Building. The building boasts a long history of weirdness—strange sounds coming from the walls, disappearances, possible occult influences—and it doesn't take long for Nell to get seriously wigged out.
Meanwhile, renters are systematically being wiped out in increasingly messy ways. The building manager is incompetent and the maintenance man is freakish; neither offers suitable answers to Nell, whose curiosity increases with each day. Nell's only friend, the lithe Julia (Angel's Juliet Landau), is the next to disappear, and this pushes her over the edge. With too much time on her hands, Nell embarks on a crusade to reveal the mystery of the building and decipher the odd symbols that are spread throughout the premises.
What do these symbols mean? How come no one knows about the history of the building? And why must she walk into dark, mysterious places all by herself?
Tobe Hooper has put together a sporadically entertaining, gleefully gory piece of slasher reminiscence in Toolbox Murders. The film shares the same name with a 1978 offering, but the 2004 version is not a remake. In fact, as the Hooper and the writers admit in the commentary track, they've never even seen the first Toolbox Murders.
This isn't the kind of horror film you'll likely find in a theatrical run. Toolbox Murders is not of the same ilk as The Ring or The Grudge; Hooper doesn't do PG-13. There is much gore to be had here, and with the extended and deleted scenes, there's even more to soak up. Hooper runs with the "toolbox" gag, as victims meet their ends through a variety of nasty ways that the Home Depot certainly wouldn't endorse. There's a power drill through the back of the head, a Skilsaw through the forehead, a pair of tree pruners to the spine, the faithful old bludgeoning with a hammer, and my favorite, the head-in-the-vice-nails-in-the-hands-lye-on-the-face job.
These brutalizations are pulled off well. The makeup is across-the-board good, and the gore effects are bloody and vivid. The face-melting lye job stands out as the most stomach-churning, with the power-saw head bisection coming in a close second. In an age of MPAA-friendly "psychological thrillers" with a group of unknown teenage OC outcasts on the movie poster, a hard R horror flick like Toolbox Murders—crafted by a legend in the genre, no less—is welcome.
While the blood and sinew are in place, the film doesn't have enough creativity to propel it above the field. Though Hooper does play with some of the genre clichés and uses them mainly as red herrings, Toolbox Murders still suffers from extreme-suspension-of-disbelief syndrome. It's one thing for the stupid girl to run back into the dark house/woods/asylum where the killer lurks, but here, when Nell traipses through the dark, mysterious cavern all by herself holding only a flashlight (and considering she had to willfully jump through a trap door with occult symbolism splashed all over it to get there), that's just stupid.
Sure, slasher movies aren't known for their deep, insightful plots, but Toolbox Murders boasts a narrative that is nonsensical at best. The film is set up as a big mystery, with Nell playing the Nancy Drew role. She's got weird symbols to follow, disappearances to investigate, crazy old guys to interrogate, and a canoe-load of wacky building history to research. Don't plan on a big satisfying payoff, though. A brief, obfuscated outburst of exposition from an old man represents the culmination of her sleuthing. And yes, we find out what's up with those weird symbols, but, well, it's dumbass.
One final thing. Before the fast-moving flurry of death and tension that is the finale, the journey is a slow one. Hooper is great at creating a chilling, enigmatic atmosphere, but the pacing suffers for it. Perhaps because the reveals were so underwhelming, in my opinion much of Toolbox Murders was a slog.
Lions Gate has—surprise!—done a decent job with its audio/video transfer. The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is tight and clean. Add to that an aggressive 5.1 Dolby Digital mix that really pounds in some places, and this DVD is a technical winner. Though the bonus features are fairly sparse, they're worthwhile. Two commentary tracks accompany, featuring Hooper and writers Jace Anderson and Adam Gierasch on one and the film's producers on the other. Both are decent, though Hooper's is bit more animated. The aforementioned deleted scenes are actually extended scenes of copious gore—but who's complaining? Last is a brief snippet of an interview with Hooper at an event where he hints at a possible "Toolbox" franchise.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The mysterious killer turns out to be a pretty effective movie monster that, of course, has super-duper-will-not-die powers. The design is creepy, the makeup is excellent, and the back story is interesting.
Toolbox Murders hits it stride in the final third when the slasherama begins, but a goofy story and grinding pacing hamper this horror flick.
The accused is released on probation.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Director Tobe Hooper and Writers
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