Toolbox Murders, The (2004)

The Toolbox Murders (2004)

Every year, thousands of people come to Los Angeles to pursue their dreams. Some succeed. Some go home. And some just disappear.

The Lusman Arms apartment block used to be the place to stay back in the early days of Hollywood but a series of unfortunate events forced its demise. But now renovations are taking place and residents are moving back in. Nell and her husband, Steven, are a young couple who are getting their feet onto the property ladder and see the block as the ideal place to start their lives together. However when they move in, strange things begin to happen and residents begin to go missing, brutally murdered at the hands of a supernatural killer.


Tobe Hooper somewhat returns to his old form with this throwback to the washed-out, gloomy drive-in horror flicks on the late 70s. A loose remake of one of the most infamous ‘video nasties’ during the 80s, The Toolbox Murders sensibly ditches the majority of the original’s story and forges its own path in the process, save for only the murderer’s multi-purpose toolkit. It’s a good job that it does manage to shape its own identity and act as a reminder to horror fans the world over that Tobe Hooper wasn’t just a flash-in-the-pan who brought us The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist but has consistently failed to deliver anything worthwhile since. Hooper needed this more than we needed it but as it turns out, The Toolbox Murders is a nice little compromise. It’s got enough going for it to satisfy genre lovers whilst not really breaking any new ground and Hooper manages to steady himself with a solid film in the hope that he can use it as a springboard to future success.

The Toolbox Murders has the bleak look of an older film, as if it has just been unearthed from a vault which was locked during the late 70s/early 80s. The film is washed out, tinged with a little darkness and purveys an overriding sense of doom throughout. Any thought that this may just be style over substance will be immediately smashed out of your thoughts within the opening few minutes as one unlucky victim falls prey to a pretty horrific claw hammer attack. It’s the sort of gut-punching opening which immediately hooks the viewer in, alerting them to the fact that this isn’t going to be a film for the faint-hearted.

Hooper toys with his audience for the first half of the film, unleashing slasher convention upon convention with the list of victims growing bigger and the methods of dispatch getting crueller and bloodier. For a slasher flick, it isn’t too bad. There’s plenty of uninspired filler but the stalk and kill scenes are shot with a clear eye for detail and atmosphere, and they’re gory (more on that in a bit). The Toolbox Murders, in a post-Scream era of hip, teen horror flicks, seems to be a glorious and defiant stand against the system. The cast isn’t filled with your usual walking, talking teenage clichés. It is made up with a curiously wacky bunch of older odd-bods that includes a voyeur, a failed actress, a sinister handyman and the lazy owner. Angela Bettis, fresh from her creepy but appealing performance in May, stars as Nell and, together with Brent Roam as Steven, they form a likeable husband and wife duo that the audience can get behind and root for. Though Nell does eventually fall into the Final Girl stereotype, Bettis keeps the role multi-dimensional with a few mannerisms and quirks to differentiate her from the crowd. Nell has to piece together what has happened at the apartment using her detective skills which leads to plenty of scenes of her walking around the building. Bettis is one of the most fragile-looking actresses I’ve ever seen and immediately gets your sympathy but the girl can act too so it’s almost impossible not to like her.

Halfway through The Toolbox Murders, Hooper just flips a switch and veers off down the supernatural route, throwing in some really daft plot twists and explanations which serve to confuse everything that has been previously built up. It becomes more of a haunted house film but doesn’t handle the directional change very well at all. Thankfully, even though the final resolution of the mystery is rather poorly-handled, there’s a lot of tension and a couple of decent frights as the killer, known as Coffin Baby, tries to put an end to Nell.

Coffin Baby looks the part of nightmares, sort of a distant cousin of Leatherface complete with a patchwork face. He is quite adept at springing out of practically anywhere in the building, with his first appearance being a right corker, and this adds a constant state of unease to the film. Not only that but he’s a dab hand at using the various implements from his toolbox. If he’s not snapping spinal cords with bolt cutters, he’s slicing off parts of skulls with band saws or using nail guns to utmost horrific effect. The make-up effects department has a field day in bringing these grisly DIY dispatches to life, with a face melting moment to be proud of. It’s no surprise to hear that a lot of these scenes had to be edited down for the limited theatrical release that the film received but thankfully they were included on the DVD version.


The Toolbox Murders is fast-paced, slick and delivers a slice of more mature, adult-orientated slash at a time when the teenage audience is getting all of the attention. Hooper doesn’t exactly reinvent the slasher wheel but proves that the sub-genre can still provide decent thrills and spills with the right man behind the camera. Plus Hooper proves that, with the right script, he still has what it takes to make an effective horror film.





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