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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » The Toolbox Murders (1978) (Blu-ray)
The Toolbox Murders (1978) (Blu-ray)
Blue Underground // Unrated // January 26, 2010 // Region Free
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted December 21, 2009 | E-mail the Author
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For the first half hour or so, The Toolbox Murders is...well, pretty much what you'd expect out of a thirtysomething-year-old slasher with a title like that. A masked killer hacks his way through an apartment complex night after night, punishing the impure and the wicked with whatever happens to be handy in that toolbox he's lugging around: y'know, an electric drill, the claw end of a hammer, a nailgun... Sure, the killer's wearing a mask and black gloves, and he even gets one of those "oh, it's you..." reactions leading up to the first kill, but The Toolbox Murders doesn't stick to the slasher playbook the way you'd probably expect. Hell, it predates the slasher glut by a couple of years, even, so it's not as if that playbook had even been jotted down yet. The killer at first glance may look like something torn straight out of a giallo, but rather than saving the shocking reveal for the last few minutes of the movie, we find out who is he halfway through. That slasher rhythm of a killer every ten minutes is completely chucked out the driver's side window, and the murderer has hung up his drillbit by the half-hour mark.

That's one of the most fascinating things about it, really; rather than leaning on its gimmick as a crutch, The Toolbox Murders is at its sleaziest and most depraved when the killing spree is over and done with. There's not all that much of a hint early on that there's going to be a story bobbing somewhere around in here. Pretty much the entire first half-hour has a killer with an off-axis ski mask barging into some chick's apartment, struggling with her for a minute or two, fishing something out of the toolbox, and plop plop fizz fizz dead. Not only does it not seem as if there's anything more to the plot than that, but unless you count stuff like "Aaaaaagh! No! Please!", there's barely even any dialogue. These kills are pretty nasty, but they haven't aged all that well. The editing can be really choppy in these stretches, the lingering closeups of the corpses afterwards are more gruesome than the actual death blows, and even with the toolbox gimmick, the murders all seem pretty straightforward these days. Veering away from the usual slasher formula, The Toolbox Murders doesn't take a stab at
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characterization for any of its red shirts, instead introducing 'em right as they're about to be carved apart. The most time we get to spend with any of them beforehand is a foxy nude model who masturbates in a bubble bath for what seems like three minutes straight before being chased around her pad with a nailgun. (Needless to say...? That's the most memorable scene in the entire flick.) ...but then the killer breaks from that M.O., choking a sweet, wide-eyed fifteen year old girl (Pamelyn Ferdin). When Laurie's brother (Nicolas Beauvy) gets back, he doesn't find blood splattered over every square inch of the apartment like there were in the other crime scenes. The only indication that anything might've happened at all is a can of Diet Pepsi that's spilled all over the shag carpeting. The cops don't buy that there's any connection with that growing stack of blood-spattered bodies, but Joey knows his kid sister's alive somewhere, and if the fuzz aren't gonna do anything about it, he's gonna have to track her down himself.

One of the biggest advantages The Toolbox Murders has is that it just barely predates the slasher craze of the '80s, so it doesn't know it's supposed to settle into those same sorts of clich├ęs. It basically transforms into a completely different movie once it crosses the half-hour mark. The killing spree is over and done with, the police investigation is more or less in the rear view mirror too, and now we're palling around with a few characters that hung around the sidelines early on. The rest of the movie is split up into two running storylines. For a while there, the blander of the two is Joey goofing around with Kent (Wesley Eure), a jack-of-all-trades who works as a handyman in his uncle's apartment complex. Kent not only offers to toss Joey a little spending money by having him help clean up what's left of these crime scenes, but they use that as an excuse to launch their own investigation.
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Turns out that Joey's right and that Laurie is still alive. She's being held prisoner by a psychopath who can't bring himself to let go of the past, bound and gagged in a frilly pink dress by a guy who brings her glasses of milk and PB&J.

Skulking around some horror message boards, a lot of people gripe that The Toolbox Murders falls off the rails twentysomething minutes in, but for me, that's when the movie really gets started. For one, the most tense sequences come when the killing spree is out of the way. Most of the early kills are pretty clumsily staged and don't get the blood rushing (y'know, figuratively or whatever), and...well, having devoured so many of the slasher flicks that'd be churned out a few years after this, I've seen all that before. On the other hand, the unmasked killer belting out "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" to a girl he's tied up with lace and ribbon in his dead daughter's old bedroom...? A deliriously rambling monologue -- complete with a musical number? -- delivered with a lollipop in hand? Even though these scenes aren't sopping with blood, they're entrancingly bizarre. I'd really like to give a nod to the actor behind the most unhinged, batshit deranged performance this side of Mal Arnold in Blood Feast, but I'll play nice with spoilers instead. As cacklingly sleazy and demented as so much of the second half of the movie is, it only gets stickier and more depraved in its final few minutes. It's also worth noting that the spotty acting early on fades away, and the performances throughout the last half-hour are actually pretty damned effective.

Yeah, there's all the gratuitous nudity, splatter, and red herrings you'd expect out of a vintage slasher, but The Toolbox Murders quickly hops out of that mold to make for one of the sleaziest, most demented exploitation flicks of the 1970s. As bleak and mean-spirited as the movie can be, The Toolbox Murders is so far out there that it's disturbingly fun at the same time, and it really does live up to all the notoriety it's scored over the years and then some. I guess I could've made this review a lot shorter by saying that if you're thinking you need to buy a movie with a title like The Toolbox Murders, you're probably right. Recommended.

C'mon, it's Blue Underground: just because that's The Toolbox Murders unspooling on-screen doesn't mean it'd be lavished with any less care and attention than Criterion would heap onto something with Bergman or Kurosawa's name on the bill. Their remastering work is as accomplished as ever. The 1080p video isn't dragged down by any trace of speckling or wear, and though that tight sheen of film grain is too unintrusive to ever distract, it also shows no signs of being overzealously smeared away either. Steering clear of any edge enhancement or excessive digital noise reduction, The Toolbox Murders looks consistently natural and filmic throughout. Black levels are generally deep and inky, and its palette -- those distinctively garish '70s colors and all -- packs more of a wallop here than I'd expect it to on DVD. Detail, clarity, and especially texture are also much improved over anything DVD could hope to deliver. The Toolbox Murders isn't as eyepopping as Blue Underground's best, such as The New York Ripper, but that looks to be a limitation of the original photography rather than any hiccups in putting this Blu-ray disc together. Ditto for that glow in the far left of the frame whenever the lights are dialed down. Anyway, The Toolbox Murders lives up to the ridiculously high expectations I set for anything with Blue Underground's logo plastered on the cover, and that's always a plus.

The Toolbox Murders is pillarboxed to preserve its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1, and its AVC encode fits comfortably on this BD-25 disc.

There's really not all that much to rattle off about this 7.1, 16-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. It's exactly what I waltzed in expecting, but if, for some reason, you're holding out hope that a 1978 slasher flick shot on the cheap is going to push your overpriced home theater rig to the breaking point, you might want to dial all that back a bit. Like pretty much everything out of Blue Underground, this is a respectful remix that doesn't take all that many liberties with the original monaural audio. There aren't any forced, gimmicky split-surround effects or awkward pans. Especially once you get past the choppy memories of a car wreck early on, this multichannel remix is used to belt out atmosphere like chirping crickets and sloshed barflies more than anything else. The score also spreads out to fill the soundscape really nicely, and the clinking bells in particular grabbed my attention. The audio stems are thin and dated, so don't hold your breath for shimmering, crystalline highs or any bass at all. Even though this is about as far from a full-bodied mix as it gets, there's still a pretty solid sense of distinctness; the different elements don't sound muddled together the way lesser vintage soundtracks frequently can. No hiss, pops, or noise reduction artifacts of note ever creep in either. The Toolbox Murders isn't some kind of aural spectacle or anything, but this low-budget exploitation flick sounds exactly the way I expected it to on Blu-ray, so I won't pretend to be disappointed.

This Blu-ray disc also serves up a Dolby Digital 5.1 EX track as well as its original monaural audio. Subtitles are offered in English (SDH), French, and Spanish.

  • Audio Commentary:
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    The Toolbox Murders' commentary track piles producer Tony DiDio, director of photography Gary Graver, and star Pamelyn Ferdin into the recording booth for this really personable, relaxed chat. None of 'em get too distracted in the technical nuts and bolts of putting a low-budget film like this together in a couple of weeks. They spell out the exact budget and even how much Cameron Mitchell was getting paidtaking with him to the track every week, but if you're hoping for detailed notes about the effects work or the specific lenses they used or whatever, this might not be the track for you. Me, though...? I dug it. The three of them do cover a fair amount about the movie -- being inspired by a reissue of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the notoriety it drummed up in the press, shrugging off rehearsals and storyboards, and even nicking a hyperefficient art department from Universal -- but I found myself liking it more when they'd tear off on tangents (...and for better or worse, that seems like 60% of the time). They run through some of Mitchell's more fascinating quirks, working alongside Sam Fuller on some of his films, and the way-too-cheery Ferdin's background as a child actress...hey, she's the original voice of Lucy from Charlie Brown! It's really not focused at all, and there can be some moderately lengthy gaps between comments at times, but the three of them are clearly having a blast recording this commentary together, and that sort of charm winds up being pretty infectious.

  • I Got Nailed in The Toolbox Murders (8 min.; SD): The title of this interview with actress Marianne Walter is even funnier when you consider that she went from being blasted with a nailgun in this flick to working as a porn starlet. Walter breezes through how a stint as a nude model landed her into The Toolbox Murders' most memorable kill, and some of the other highlights scattered around here are shooting a masturbation sequence without completely realizing it, being immortalized on the poster art, diving headfirst into porn after scoring her SAG card, and the career she's carved out for herself on the other side of the camera. Definitely worth a look.

  • Vintage Promotional Stuff (4 min.; SD): There's a quick nod in the audio commentary to The Toolbox Murders' inhumanly successful ad campaign, and that's represented on this Blu-ray disc through a TV commercial, a pair of radio spots, and a full length trailer.

The Final Word
The first half-hour is pretty much what you'd expect out of a '70s exploitation flick called The Toolbox Murders: a few (mostly) nubile young women being hacked to bits with stuff pulled out of an oversized toolbox. From there, though, the movie gets a whole helluva lot more demented than just another slasher-with-a-gimmick. The body count peters off from there, and you pretty much lose the whole toolbox thing, sure, but...well, there's a reason why The Toolbox Murders has that reputation as one of the sleaziest flicks ever made. Essential viewing for the cult cinema crowd. Recommended.
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