Who knew a movie with a ski-masked killer chasing a naked woman around her apartment could be so tedious? Not exactly fresh from the sick, sick 70s, THE TOOLBOX MURDERS is that movie. Surprisingly, even a dildo throwing scene can't save it.
Appearing to take its cue from the Italian giallo, a man with black leather gloves carries a toolbox to a Californian apartment complex (so 70s that it has Artex on the walls that could take your eye out). Seemingly, the only people living here are nubile young women who like nothing better than posing semi-nude by their window, taking lengthy preparations to bathe, or lathering themselves into a frenzy in a bubble bath. To kick things off, a drunken housewife is killed with a hand drill, as her attacker hums 'Sometimes I feel like a motherless child'. He then attacks a woman with a claw hammer, before killing her female lover/lodger with a screwdriver. Their bodies are discovered by a neighbour, who calls the police. The complex's owner, Vance (Cameron Mitchell), is questioned about the murders. Ostensibly concerned, Vance is actually the killer (something that isn't hidden very well by the ill-fitting ski mask and becomes apparent soon after). The motive for his killing spree is his fundamentalist (with the emphasis on mentalist) religious views and the death of his teenage daughter, Kathy (whose fate we keep seeing in flashbacks that look like they were shot through a urine filter).
The next evening, Vance goes about his bloody handiwork again at the apartment block. In the film's most infamous scene, he watches as a woman (future porn star Kelly Nichols making her début here) masturbates in the bath, before chasing her round her apartment; firing at her nude body with a nailgun. However, even here – despite the sensationalist subject matter – Donnelly handles the action listlessly, as if he's ticking murders off from a shopping list. It's sleazy but determinedly suspense free. The juxtaposing of sugary sweet country and soft rock songs with the violence could have been potent, but really only adds to the flatness. George Deaton's lush opening score again is at odds with the drabness that follows.
Vance then kidnaps a young 15 year old girl, Laurie (Pamelyn Ferdin), and takes her back to his home; where he keeps her in the bed of his dead daughter ...
Despite the would-be rousing opening twenty minutes, much like the later WHEN A STRANGER CALLS (1979), the slasher movie elements end once Laurie has been abducted. Like that film, THE TOOLBOX MURDERS clanks down a gear (if such a thing were possible!) and settles into a police procedural rut (with a subplot between the detective (the director's brother) and Laurie's mother, which ultimately goes nowhere). Laurie's brother also plays amateur sleuth and is joined by Vance's nephew, when he agrees to clean the crime scenes.
Filmed in 1977, and released in 1978, THE TOOLBOX MURDERS has something of a fearsome reputation. Supposedly it was made after the success of the re-release of THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW (1974), which gave producer Tony DiDio dollar signs in his eyes. Needless to say, it has none of the raw power of Tobe Hooper's film. Released in UK cinemas shorn of 6 minutes, it was also banned in the UK as a 'video nasty' in the early 1980s. However, despite the nail gun murder (in its uncut form) it's not really all that nasty. The murders are brutal, but shot in such a pedestrian manner, with zero suspense, that they actually have little real impact. Paradoxically, it is this pedestrian nature that adds a disturbing matter-of-fact air to the proceedings. It really does feel that the psychotic handyman is going about his everyday duties – humming as he goes, and nothing is out of the ordinary. Also, it would be difficult to defend the film against claims of misogyny – with nearly all the women being objectified or butchered (or both). Apart from the fact that two out three of the film's writers were women.
Again at odds with the listless proceedings, Cameron gives a typically overblown and entertaining turn as the killer. Of course, he was no stranger to the slasher film, having starred in – amongst others – Bava's seminal giallo BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (1964), as well as going on to put in scenery chewing turns in both THE DEMON (1979) and MEMORIAL DAY MASSACRE (1988). Here he's at his sweaty, neurotic best; lecturing Laurie on good and evil, and telling her he had to kill all those 'bad' women for their 'sins'. However, to show he's not all bad, he does assure her that he put them 'down' as you would “a sick dog”. This doesn't seem to reassure the naturally nervous girl!
For much of its time, THE TOOLBOX MURDERS plays like a TV movie – albeit with spikes of bloody violence, nudity and a couple of left-field twists. It is perhaps no surprise, that Donnelly went on to carve a career, so to speak, in television. It would be difficult to imagine that John Carpenter got much inspiration from this, although you do have to wonder where he got the name of his final girl from!
Laughably, the film tries to pass itself off as based on a true story – even going as far detailing what happens to the surviving characters just before the credits roll. Of course, this was all bogus, although it was probably inspired by real life killers such as Ted Bundy, as was the similarly sleazy THE DARK RIDE from the same year.
BODYCOUNT 7 female:5 / male:21) Female killed in car crash