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Toolbox Murders 2

Shout Factory // Unrated // August 4, 2015
List Price: $19.97 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted July 19, 2015 | E-mail the Author
"I know it's shit... We even dumped a chunk of money into the thing to fix it, and it still sucks."
- Producer Tony DiDio on Toolbox Murders 2

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There's a hell of a story here, and no, I'm not talking about the screenplay for Toolbox Murders 2. This sequel-to-a-remake had a small army of different writers and directors attached to it at least as far back as 2006. Dean C. Jones eventually stepped aboard as director and rewrote the screenplay, despite never having worked professionally before in either capacity. What he shot in 2011 bore borderline-zero resemblance to what was sold to investors, which was something about a siege on the hospitalized survivors from the previous movie. Its premiere later that year was by a couple of vague accounts disastrous, and apparently things from there soured intensely between Jones and the producers. Some version of Toolbox Murders 2 wound up on Amazon's Burn On Demand program in the summer of 2012, yet a few months later, Jones was shooting new footage for a movie that had already escaped into the wild. There was an argument over who really owned it, and as lawsuits were being flung around, Jones supposedly spliced what he'd shot together with a completely different flick and released it overseas as Coffin Baby. It took a long while, but apparently everyone came to some sort of agreement. Some four years later, here we are, staring down the barrel of Toolbox Murders 2. Was it worth the wait?

Too bad I'm not reviewing some documentary about all of this chaos behind the scenes instead because Toolbox Murders 2 is just...urgh. I really do respect what Dean Jones is going for here, though. The same as the '70s exploitation flick that inspired it, Toolbox Murders was a fairly straightforward slasher about a masked killer slaughtering his way through an apartment building, just with more of a supernatural bent. This sequel completely upends the stalk-and-slash formula. TBK doesn't spend an hour and a half hunting Samantha (Chauntal Lewis), the sister of Angela Bettis' character from the previous film; she's his prisoner the instant the movie opens. It's some sort of psychological experiment, but to what end, TBK isn't telling. Samantha is starved, dehydrated, mutilated, tortured, tormented, and dehumanized at every turn. Is TBK trying to see how much Samantha can suffer before she breaks? Is he molding her into becoming a reflection of his own psychosis? Is there any end game at all, or could he just be pulling the wings off flies? Whatever answers are to be had remain buried in his deranged mind. What follows is a battle of wills, and as Samantha defies TBK in what few ways she can, more and more of her sanity...her humanity...slips away.

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Toolbox Murders 2 is, in many ways, a one-woman show. There are hardly any supporting characters of consequence, and the overwhelming majority of the movie is just Samantha suffering alone in her cell. TBK's nightmarish mug may be splashed all over the poster -- although he's only unmasked like that for a few seconds, tops -- but even he often keeps to the periphery. After all, Toolbox Murders 2 isn't really about the victims he parades in front of Samantha and brutally butchers; it's about how Sam is transformed by that torment. It's an extremely challenging role, and Chauntal Lewis gives it everything she has. She's forced to shoulder Toolbox Murders 2 almost entirely on her own, and her interactions are largely limited to a force of nature that cannot speak. Her descent into madness and savagery, the physical torment she's forced to endure time and again, and even vomiting up a roach she devours out of starvation: it's a raw, demanding performance. Lewis also incorporates a real-life tragedy she's endured into her work here, and I just cannot fathom how difficult that must have been. Lewis is no Scream Queen, though, and a number of moments that are meant to be harrowing or disturbing instead come across as kinda ridiculous. I'm deeply impressed by how far Lewis is willing to push herself, but she's just...not very good here, I'm sad to say. No actor escapes Toolbox Murder 2 unscathed, though, and even Bruce Dern -- who shortly after filming this would be nominated for an Academy Award for Nebraska -- struggles to wade through such dismal material in his small, pointless, repetitive role as another of TBK's prisoners.

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Nothing about Toolbox Murders 2 works. Every time Samantha bumps into another of TBK's prey, they wind up standing in place and bickering indecisively instead of doing anything, and that gets awfully frustrating awfully quickly. In theory, I like the idea of a psychopath whose motives remain unclear. Think of how much more horrifying Halloween would've remained if the sequels hadn't introduced the sister element and if Michael Myers was just fixated on an entirely random babysitter. Still, the lack of any clear goal or even what may have drawn him towards Samantha, the mysterious presence of other prisoners that are handled with kid gloves, and even stuff like TBK dumping one body in the river when the guy clearly hoards corpses: there's just not much of a narrative to really latch onto here. Despite the nightmarish horrors that TBK unleashes, the gruesome and well-executed effects rarely made me squirm in my seat, and the psychopath himself has very little presence. The best screen killers make your hair stand up on end when they leap onto the screen. TBK, meanwhile, is just kind of there. Let down by the editing, cinematography, score, writing, and...well, everything, TBK is not even a little bit menacing, his presence is not unnerving, and you're not gonna need to reach for a nightlight after giving Toolbox Murders 2 a spin. My God, that endless sequence that's basically nothing but Samantha chomping on popcorn and passive-aggressively turning off a TV that TBK keeps flipping on over and over and over... I felt like I was the one in a cage being tortured. Oh well! At least it's short. (Ignore the 95 minute runtime listed on the IMDb and the packaging; Toolbox Murders 2 clocks in just shy of 85 minutes.) Anyway, Skip It.

By and large, Toolbox Murders 2 looks fairly slick in high-def. Despite being saddled with that aggressively digital direct-to-video look which isn't my thing so much, the image is still razor-sharp, well-defined, and teeming with fine detail for the overwhelming majority of its runtime. I can't imagine Toolbox Murders 2 looking any better than what Scream Factory has delivered here, and the disc's AVC encode shoulders its clean, clear photography beautifully.

What hiccups there are almost certainly all date back to the original production. A handful of shots were picked up on extremely low-end gear -- if you could get a camera phone as the prize in a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, we're talking about something in that ballpark -- riddled with digital artifacting and heavy video noise. The drop in quality throughout these few, scattered moments is dramatic, but they're hardly a persistent nuisance. The opening titles are deliberately meant to look like something shot on Hi-8 and fished off of some sixth-generation VHS dub, so if you hold that against the presentation, you're doing it wrong. There are a couple of shots where I spotted some odd digital anomalies, such as an unstable boiler cover or the straw in TBK's lair getting kind of glitchy. As obvious as they are in motion, they don't translate to still images all that well. Look at the green straw in the bottom-middle of this shot and maybe you'll see what I mean, though. Those only last for a couple of seconds in all, and I suspect all of that was in Toolbox Murders 2 well before authoring started on this Blu-ray disc. Overall, though, these are pretty minor gripes. Not my look but generally solid just the same.

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Toolbox Murders 2 hacks and slashes its way onto a single layer Blu-ray disc at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1.

This Blu-ray disc piles on two 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks: one in stereo and the other in 5.1. Honestly, the difference isn't nearly as dramatic as I'd expect.

Even in 5.1, Toolbox Murders 2 sounds as if it was targeted primarily for stereo. I couldn't spot much of anything in the surround channels for the first ten minutes or so, repeatedly putting my ear right up against those speakers and even doing a signal test to make sure something hadn't accidentally gotten disconnected. You'd expect the music in the opening titles, if nothing else, to roar from every direction, but nope. Dead silent in back, and the same goes for the stings preceding flashbacks and punctuating jump scares. The mix does open up after those first ten minutes, but the rears are almost always used to reinforce the forgettable, keyboard-driven score. A few effects take advantage of the surrounds -- TBK firing up a blowtorch and skittering across the roof of a police cruiser -- but I didn't notice much of anything beyond that and the music. There's surprisingly little in the way of ambiance or atmosphere, and a more immersive sound design might've made viewers feel as if they're trapped in that dark, dank cage too.

The LFE is no great shakes, and I mean that literally. There's bass, yeah, but Toolbox Murders 2 doesn't unleash the low-frequency thunder I'm used to hearing in even the most modestly budgeted horror flicks. I'm surprised by how little impact many of the sound effects have. There's one sequence with chains rattling and TBK whacking a hatchet into his workbench, and every bit of it is limp and lifeless. The recording of the dialogue outside of TBK's lair can be kind of uneven, and I swear there's a point a little past the 8 minute mark where you can hear a shirt rustling a lapel mic or something, which I've just...never heard in a feature film. I wouldn't pin the blame for any of this on Scream Factory, but Toolbox Murders 2 is still considerably below average for a newly-ish-produced genre effort.

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Also included is a set of English (SDH) subtitles.

  • Trailer (2 min.; HD): ...and that's the beginning and end of the list. Sounds about right for a production as troubled as this one supposedly was.

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No combo pack treatment this time around, but you do get a slipcover out of the deal.

The Final Word
Etched onto the chest of one of TBK's victims is "if you can't be something great, do something terrible", and that pretty much sums up Toolbox Murders 2 as a movie too.

To be fair, Toolbox Murders 2 isn't some straight-to-video schlock cashing in on a familiar title and retreading the same stalk-and-slash formula for the second...well, third, technically...time. Writer/director Dean C. Jones aims for something far more character-driven and intensely psychological, an approach plenty of horror flicks say they're taking but rarely ever do. As ambitious as Toolbox Murders 2 is, the end result is basically one swing and a miss after another. The Grand Guignol onslaught of torture and dismemberment rarely evokes the sort of visceral reaction it's going for, and TBK never inspires the menace and dread a psychopath with his body count demands. Chauntal Lewis gives it her all in a daring, challenging, and multilayered performance, but the clumsy, muddled writing, the general "...what? why?" to basically everything here, and, frankly, her modest talents repeatedly get in the way. There's just...nothing here to recommend. Skip It.

If You're a Masochist...
Good news! Toolbox Murders 3 is currently seeking funding on Indiegogo. As I write this, five days into the campaign, it's raised $150 of its $325,000 target.
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