The Toolbox Murders (1978) 4K Ultra HD Review: Gruesome Grindhouse Exploitation

The difference between exploitation and horror is attitude. In a horror movie, you sympathize with the victim. In exploitation, your sympathies are at least 50/50 – oh, it is horrible this woman is being murdered… but I don’t mind she’s being murdered in the nude. The Toolbox Murders (1978) is an exploitation film that is aping a horror movie, and ultimately (perhaps unwittingly) becomes one.

The story is almost completely encapsulated in the title. The killer has a toolbox. He murders women with the things inside it. It starts with a power drill. Then a claw hammer. The final dead girl gets it with a nail gun. This all happens in about the first 20 minutes of the film, after which the body count stagnates. Then the film pretends it has a story.

Who the murderer is is supposed to be a mystery, though anyone who has watched low-budget movies from the ’60s and ’70s will recognize Cameron Mitchell without much trouble despite his ill-fitting ski mask. He is the owner of the apartment building where all the terror takes place. It’s supposed to be a secure building, there’s no forced entry. Look, this is not a suspense film. But there are twists, and some surprises near the end which metamorphose the film in surprising, interesting ways.

The Toolbox Murders was developed after the success of a re-release of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Producer Tony Didio wanted to replicate that film’s success, without much apparent understanding of what made it powerful. It wasn’t the kills, which weren’t numerous, but the prevailing perversity and weirdness of the setting. Texas Chainsaw is a masterpiece. The Toolbox Murders is a cheap exploitation movie which generates some interest in its last third, almost by accident.

Between the murders and a feckless police investigation, a 15-year-old girl is kidnapped. Her brother can’t get the police interested, so he involves the landlord’s nephew, who has the high-class name of Kent, to investigate. The nephew, however, seems way too into cleaning up the blood-strewn apartments, and really enjoys imagining what happened in the gruesome murders.

In an exploitation film like The Toolbox Murders, the point is not building a cohesive story that carries the audience along. It’s showing horrible things, and then stringing scenes together that emulate a story to get to the next horrible thing. On that level, The Toolbox Murders isn’t terribly successful. The nudity and murders are basically done in the first act. While they are neither clever nor interesting, they are gruesome and prurient, which in this context has its own value. Then there is about a half an hour of police investigating and “character” scenes which lead nowhere.

It’s in the final third of the film The Toolbox Murders picks up. Spent mostly in the house of the murder, it moves the film from the exploitation genre into a more resonant horror theme. This is accomplished by transplanting story beats form The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to the San Fernando Valley without quite understanding how to do it. But it saves the film from being a waste of time into something with more depth and a certain frisson.

The performances are rarely worth writing home about, though Pamelyn Ferdin as the youthful Laurie is charming. She plays a 15-year-old girl who reminds the murderer of his lost daughter, and so is kidnapped and locked away in his house. The actress turned 18 shortly before the film was shot, and so the producers tried to work in some nudity that she refused to do. That is the caliber of filmmaker on this project. It was, perhaps not coincidentally, her last acting job.

But it’s a grindhouse exploitation film. The high quality of the video on this 4K release seems almost antithetical to the effectiveness of a gritty, ugly film. A VHS quality transfer would seem more appropriate to the subject material. But it is a fine-looking disc, with the limitations of the material in mind. I did not care for the surround sound mix, which seemed to randomly place musical elements in the rear speakers and was happier watching the film in its original mono track.

What is the point of this movie? If you like seeing semi or completely naked women attacked (and who doesn’t?), the first third is for you. If you like terrible police investigations that go nowhere and are completely dropped, it’s got that for you, too. The final third contains surprising twists and psychodrama, and I liked the ending. The Toolbox Murders has a slight schizophrenia, where it moves from cash grab to actual engaging horror film in the final 30 minutes of its running time. Whether that’s worth the grime of its first act is up to you.

The Toolbox Murders has been released on 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray by Blue Underground. On the 4K disc, extras include a pair of commentaries: an archival commentary with producer Tony Didio, DP Gary Grave, and actress Pamelyn Ferdin, and a new commentary by film historians Tony Howarth and Nathaniel Thompson. The Blu-ray contains the film, these commentaries, and several video extras: “Drill Sergeant” (21 min) and interview with director Dennis Donnelly; “Tools of the Trade” (27 min) interview with actor Wesley Eure; “Flesh and Blood” (32 min) interview with actress Kelly Nichols; “Slashback Memories” (25 min), a memory of Cameron Mitchell; “They Know I Have Been Sad” (20 min), a video essay by Amanda Reyers and Chris O’Neill; and an archival video extra, “I got Nail in the Toolbox Murders” (9 min) an interview with Marianne Walter (who is Kelly Nichols). There are also trailers and TV spots.

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Kent Conrad

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