Written for Varied Celluloid by Prof. Aglaophotis

The Plot: Trouble of some disturbing proportions is brewing in Los Angeles. An apartment complex is suddenly rocked by three vicious murders: in one night, three women in the apartment are killed by a man in leather and a ski mask, using the contents of his toolbox in order to get the deeds done. After one night passes however, residents Joey and his sister Laurie get involved after the amorous young neighbor below them is nail-gunned and Laurie is kidnapped. As the police attempt to figure out who did it, Joey and acquaintance/nephew of the apartment owner Kent start doing their own detective work in an attempt to find Laurie. But as the clues unravel in front of our protagonists, none of them will be prepared for the consequences.

The Review
I don’t know what it is about American Horror films from the 1970’s but they make me really appreciate the deepest roots of the Horror genre. It seems no matter how hard modern Horror films try, there’s always something lacking in the atmosphere, brutality, sleaze and exploitative features that were just abundant in Horror films from the ‘70’s. Maybe it’s just the film stock, maybe it was the soundtrack, or perhaps just the antiquated style, what was once considered modern for its time. Regardless, it’s those synonymous aspects that almost entirely make-up for the lacking elements of the Exploitation-Horror films of times past. Such is the case with The Toolbox Murders: it’s one of those old Exploitation-Horror movies that delivers everything you could possibly desire from a movie of its caliber despite its rather tangible faults.

The movie is shot fairly well with a lot of decent locations in the Wal Mart area of Southern California it’s shot in. If anything, there are a few lingering long shots that take forever to zoom-in on like the bedroom scene. There are some good long shots, though, like when Joey and Vance are driving in the suburbs and the roofs of the suburban houses just look really nice as the camera follows the car.

The lighting in the movie works for the most part, though there were one or two dark scenes that obscure a character for a second or two and there is one fairly bright scene in which you can easily spot the shadow of the boom mike. I honestly like just how low-budget the movie is because there are little subtle flops you can spot after the fourth victim is murdered even when you’re a little drunk. All I can say is: what? too under-budgeted to afford surgeon gloves for an AUTOPSY scene?

The soundtrack consisted of some nice tunes, from a tragic symphony score to a few sleazy Oldies songs. The violins work really well in the movie too, it’s really effective stuff; it reaches its best when we realize who the killer is (halfway through the movie) and there’s an emphasis on sadness crossed with a light tension building up in the strings. I like how there’s one scene where the killer is watching a woman in her underwear dance around in front of her apartment window almost to a goofy disco tune on the radio in the killer’s room (even though she’s supposed to be dancing to a Country song in her apartment).*

The acting is okay for the most part. The victims were pretty good in being fearful and having appropriate reactions. The nail-gun victim even tries to talk him out of killing her in a surprising brutal chase and murder scene. The only victim that didn’t quite work was the second one: the set-up to the second victim is really awkward because she starts to draw a shower where she all ready has clothes hanging up in. She turns away from the very visible and brightly lit clothes, turns around and mistakes them for someone hiding behind the curtains… even though she just saw them. Then when the killer approaches her, she instantly – and for no reason – passionately stares at him as if she instantly fell in love with him on first sight. What’s even funnier is that we learn pretty early on that the killer is a religious man, yet the second victim was wearing a crucifix around her neck.

The main characters trying to solve the mystery, Joey and Kent, were pretty likable characters, but the lead detective in the movie was the highlight of the bad performances. Not only was he the slowest talking, most boring character in the movie, he was also the dumbest of all of them. Seriously, the character couldn’t figure out a possibility that I and the other characters figured out pretty damn quick. Then again, the character Kent did point out that the detective was a ‘dumb ass,’ but I didn’t think he was going to be plot-hole dumb. Every scene with the lead detective makes me yearn for a tubby, skeptical nit-wit sheriff because at least then he’d liven the mood. What’s weird is that his scenes generally last about three to four minutes, yet they always feel too long. Maybe if there was a scene where he’d shout obscenities for no reason, get angry over little things, anything! And you know what sucks the most about this character? There’s no payoff; his character survives, much less remains out of harms way throughout the whole movie! And just to be clear: no, I’m not ragging on the actor because he’s related to the director; I see what he was going for with the detective being the haggard, tired kind, but that’s all the character was beyond boring and unnecessary.

The highlight of the actors though has to be Cameron Mitchell. I now reference the late ex-Broadway actor frequently, but this is one of the best roles I’ve seen him in. Cameron Mitchell comes across as a fairly convincing character who carries the right moods for most of his scenes and I like how he ad-libbed some of his dialogue. This and Raw Force may be some of the best work the man’s done in B-Movies. Pamelyn Ferdin was really good in her role as well seeing that the character had to use her imagination in order to keep the killer emotionally comforted and I was kind of rooting for her character a little.

The kill scenes themselves weren’t too badly done, but there’s a lot of down-time after the fourth victim before someone else gets killed. There could’ve been a lot more build-up to it (you know, like getting the lead detective involved…), though the fifth death is quite worth the wait. From what I have read, that seems to be mostly everyone’s gripe about the movie, so I keep getting the feeling that if someone had died anywhere between the fourth victim and next set of deaths, it might have kept things going for the audience. I was also hoping that the last few deaths near the end would actually involve the further contents of the toolbox, just so the movie begins and ends with that sort of appropriate entitlement; much like Kiss of the Tarantula, The Toolbox Murders is just the set-up for the events.

I mentioned that the movie was sleazy, and it sure as Hell is. Forgiving the fact that the killer is a misogynist, the fourth victim is where the sleaze-o-meter really spikes. It tries to come-up near the end again with a few little twists, but nothing could top the build-up and execution we get for the fourth victim.

The Toolbox Murders comes to us on DVD from Blue Underground who previously released movies to DVD such as The Prowler, Shock Waves and The Final Countdown. There’s actually a nice deal of information one can assess from listening to the audio commentary by Tony Didio, Gary Garver and Pamelyn Ferdin. They discuss various topics about the movie, how it started, recollection of experiences with actors and the like, all of which I found rather fun to hear. The interview with Marianne Walter appropriately titled ‘I Got Nailed in the Toolbox Murders’ is quite a delight to hear. Marianne pretty much tells of her exploit in the Toolbox Murders in her own detail, how she felt about the scene and her claim to adult film fame thereafter, all of which sounded like an up beat and cheerful experience. For the most part, the extras on the DVD are quite easy to expect seeing how far the movie has gotten in film history, as well as the DVD release being from Blue Underground.

The Conclusion
Honestly, The Toolbox Murders is no train wreck; it has its slow moments and occasionally average acting on the side, but it delivers the package pretty well in the beginning and end. If anything the idiot detective character just brings the whole experience down, so much to the point that the movie would be a fraction better if the character had just been omitted. It’s worth the money to find The Toolbox Murders on DVD for its revealing of various acting experiences and interesting trivia regarding one of the many widely known and (semi) loved exploitative horror films around. I still say it could’ve been better, but as far as Cameron Mitchell movies go, you could do a lot worse.

* If only Silent Hill 4 had THAT movie reference worked into its plot…

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