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Toolbox Murders, The (2005)

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 03/14/05 20:55:07

"Because, let’s face it, 'Lunchbox Murders' wouldn’t be as much fun."
3 stars (Just Average)

I’m a horror fan but not a slasher fan, so unlike many other horror buffs around here, I found myself not caring one way or another about the news that somebody was remaking “The Toolbox Murders.” The 1978 original was, to me, just one of those disposable slasher crappers, so who cares what anybody does with it? Besides, how exactly does one kill somebody with a toolbox? (Or, worse, is somebody going around killing toolboxes?)

Things looked interesting, however, once Tobe Hooper’s name landed on the credits. Hooper, as you already know, helmed the horror essentials “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” and “Poltergeist,” as well as the “Salem’s Lot” miniseries and the underrated 80s flicks “Lifeforce” and “Invaders From Mars.” But then the poor guy disappeared into the world of crap, pumping out such varied work as the stinky theatrical release “The Mangler” to the stinky video release “Crocodile.” Needless to say, a return to form has been long overdue.

Which brings us, finally, back to “Toolbox Murders,” in which Hooper and his “Crocodile” scripters Jace Anderson and Adam Gierasch rework the entire premise of the original, so that their update retains the murder weapons, the title, and nothing else. And let’s face it, sometimes that’s how it should be, as long as it works in our favor.

The result is a movie that’s not as gore-centric as one might think (or hope, if you’re into that sort of thing). In fact, it’s surprisingly plot-heavy and, yes, even smart. Hooper, Anderson, and Gierasch have managed to bring a little bit of depth to their characters, just enough to get us actually involved in the story - you know, the characters are more than just nameless, plotless victims.

More importantly, even though Hooper gives his attention to the murder sequences (with enough inventive blood-and-guts to please the Fangoria crowd, yet not so much as to put off those not into such things), “Toolbox” works instead because of the quiet tension the director manages to crank up. This is a slasher film concerned with its story, making it a delightfully rare treat.

The story in question: Newlyweds Nell (Angela Bettis) and Steven (Brent Roam) have moved out to L.A., landing an apartment in the historic Lusman Arms, which turns out to be just a rundown craphole nowadays. The walls are paper-thin, nothing ever works, and, by the way, there’s a deranged masked killer stalking the hallways, offing residents with the contents of his aforementioned toolbox.

Nell’s not one to sit around and let her neighbors be staplegunned, and so she investigates, leading her to discover all sorts of sordid secrets. And here’s where we come to the best part of the film: by her lonesome, Nell decides to grab a flashlight and look for a dark, spooky hidden room in the building and the secrets it contains. This sequence alone, with its ever-building tension, packs much more wallop than all the death scenes combined. Hooper knows how to do so much with so little, and the longer he lets Nell wander these dark corners, the more the viewer becomes on edge.

“Toolbox” is not without its problems, of course; most notably, the entire mystery of the killer’s identity seems tossed off without much regard. Spending so much time developing a usable puzzle out of the secret rooms and the building’s history, the writers left out anything decent involving the killer himself. Sure, the screenplay tosses us red herrings, but anyone who’s ever seen a horror film will look right past them. So when the killer is at last disclosed, it’s a revelation that earns more yawns than shocks.

But the filmmakers know how to pick up the slack. The whole thing’s dripping in atmosphere, dark and grimy and ready to set the viewer off. The script adds some nice touches in the earlier scenes (frequent calls to 911 become a running gag; the whole everyone-wants-to-be-in-the-movies Hollywood vibe makes a nice backdrop) that draw us in on a character level. And the cast adds to the fun, be it the hamminess of the pissed off building manager (Greg Travis) and the obligatory Nice Old Guy (Rance Howard, of all people!), or the dependably solid performances of genre regulars Angela Bettis and Juliet Landau. (Bettis’ name in the credits is enough to catch the film; following her breakthrough turn in “May,” she’s proved herself to be the go-to gal for horror goodness. A powerful screen presence, her appearance here only improves things.)

“Toolbox” may not be a complete return for Hooper, but it’s a good start. It’s a decent little B thriller, eager to please. It gives its audience exactly what it wants, providing enough blood to satisfy the splatter freaks, enough chills to satisfy more laid-back horror fans like myself. In a genre where so many titles disappoint, Hooper makes sure that this one won’t.

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