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The Right Tools for the job…

A movie title like The Toolbox Murders creates specific expectations. I know what’s in my toolbox, and I can imagine all kinds of creative and deadly ways to use those tools on my enemies. You’d think that a movie made in 1978, at the height of controversial exploitation filmmaking, would be a horror fan’s delight.

And then, you’d think that a remake 26 years later by none other than the director of the granddaddy of them all, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, would elevate that delight to ecstasy. Well, unfortunately, you’d be thinking wrong. Neither The Toolbox Murders (1978) nor Toolbox Murders (2004) comes close to meeting the expectations that their lurid titles promise.

The original The Toolbox Murders is a true oddity that plays like part-Giallo, part-bad TV movie. In fact, the credits of director Dennis Donnelly include no other theatrical releases; instead, only multiple episodes of TV series like Adam-12, Marcus Welby M.D. and Charlie’s Angels. If I didn’t know better, I’d say that this was first a TV movie with additional footage shot for movie theaters. The writers, Neva Friedenn, Robert Easter and Ann Kindberg, have few other credits; however, Kindberg has a lenghty resume as a Producer… of television shows.

And the cast is strictly TV. Our heroine is Pamelyn Ferdin, a likable young actress who guest-starred on many, many shows. She was a prettier, less tomboyish, Kristy McNichol. Our hero (?) is Wesley Eure, teenage heartthrob from the original Land of the Lost. Finally, the role of obligatory has-been actor belongs to Cameron Mitchell, box office “star” from the 1940’s and 50’s, but relegated to TV movies and series by 1960.

What may or may not be “additional footage” is attached to the front of the movie. And it’s not bad for 1978 low-budget exploitation films. There’s plenty of nudity and buckets of blood. But after a series of brutal and graphic murders using various toolbox items, The Toolbox Murders becomes a real snoozefest. The story isn’t bad, I suppose, but it transforms into a below-average detective story that could have been G-rated.

In the 2004 version, director Tobe Hooper drops the “The” from the title, as well as the entire plot. I’d barely consider it a remake, but I suppose the starting point is the same: someone is killing the residents of an apartment complex. That’s where the similarities end, though. In fact, I don’t remember a toolbox even being in Toolbox Murders. Yes, there is construction happening in the building, so there are tools lying around, but there is no attempt to use an actual toolbox as a plot device. The original at least attempts to do that, but the twist its intended to spring on us is blown long before that.

In the original movie, I knew the instant I saw him who the killer was going to be. Conversely, in the remake, I knew the instant I saw him who the killer WASN’T going to be; he was an obvious red herring. So you’d think there would be a twist coming in the remake. Nope; where the original had a backstory and purpose for the murders (as thin as it may have been), the remake never clearly explains what’s going on. Instead, it takes a more supernatural path with a lot of fuzzy mumbo-jumbo about spells and hidden apartments.

It’s kind of an intriguing idea. But not for a movie called Toolbox Murders. Instead of a mystery grounded in reality, it’s a flat-out horror movie with a monster called “Shadow Man”. He’s kind of cool, but again, there’s no explanation for his origins. That’s not required to make a good horror movie, but here we need a little more story so that it makes sense. Jace Anderson and Adam Gierasch have also written a handful of other straight-to-video horror movies and Toolbox Murders is the same calibur as those, including last year’s Night of the Demons remake. More disappointing is the direction by Hooper. It’s not bad, but that’s the thing; it’s just so average. Although several jump scares are attempted, none are effective.

The cast of the remake could provide a few treats for horror fans, but they are not served well by the script. There’s no real reason for Angela Bettis (May) to suspect something weird is happening. Why not drop a couple lines into the story that she’s, perhaps, had mental issues in the past? Then you’ve added another level to the story, giving, number one, a reason for her to be suspicious and, number two, a reason for people not to believe her. I guess you could read that into the story, but Toolbox Murders makes no attempt to be so deep.

The obligatory has-been actor in Toolbox Murders, here assuming the role of crazy old man who warns our heroine of the danger she faces, is Rance Howard, giving us a pretty good idea what his son, Ron, will look like in a few years. And there’s a “cameo” by Sherri Moon, then without the Zombie. I didn’t even realize she was in it until the credits rolled. With a little more screen time, I was more excited to see Juliet Landua, Drusilla from TV’s Angel.

I’m not sure I can recommend either movie. I would, however, recommend watching the first 20-minutes or so of The Toolbox Murders (1978) for a good example of what exploitation films were doing in the 1970’s: ski-mask covered killers stalking naked women, butchering them for no apparent reason. And, I’d recommend starting Toolbox Murders (2004) after the title appears, so you don’t try to connect it to the original and can enjoy the hint of an original concept. But for a great horror movie that lives up to its title? The real Toolbox Murders has yet to be made.

REMAKE REWIND: The Toolbox Murders
1.8Overall Score
The Toolbox Murders (1978)
Toolbox Murders (2004)
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