The Toolbox Murders (1978)



Most folks I talked to about it said that the remake of The Toolbox Murders was better, which dampened my interest in seeing the original. But since I am so swamped as of late, I've been using (non-extra feature enabled) Netflix Instant for all of my HMADs, and Toolbox was recently added, giving me a rare push to see it. And while I agree that the remake is better, this one isn't a total loss, especially if you're a Cameron Mitchell enthusiast.

I think what most people dislike about the movie is that it starts off as a gory slasher and becomes a half-assed procedural, with a cop trying to figure out who the killer is before he strikes again (and for once, he sort of does!), as the brother of a kidnapped girl doing his own investigation. It's an odd setup, and no one involved is as talented as the cast/crew that pulled off the similarly structured Zodiac, so it's not a successful switch at all.

Also, it's way too obvious that Mitchell is the killer. They go out of their way to hide his face during the kill scenes, at least until he puts on a ski mask, under which we can clearly see Mitchell's eyes. They "reveal" that he is the killer around the halfway mark, so why they bothered is beyond me. It's probably just to make the cop stuff slightly more interesting as the movie moves away from slashings and into a kidnapping thriller. For example, he interrogates the brother about the disappearance, and the kid's alibi is rather slim, plus he gets caught in a lie - it actually momentarily made me consider whether or not it was indeed Mitchell I saw under that mask.

It's not too long after that that Mitchell comes out full force as the villain, but now instead of killing folks he's more just a crazy old loon who thinks the girl he kidnapped can replace his daughter. Here's the stuff his fans will dig, as he plays a doting dad, singing about lollipops and making PB&J sandwiches. In most of the movies I've seen with him, he's just sort of a loud, garish man (Raw Force) or an understated villain (Haunts), so it was fun to see him act sort of goofy/crazy for once.

As for the slashing stuff, well, it's quite gory, but not particularly scary. We never even know most of the victims' names, and we only meet them when they're about to die (I'm actually a bit puzzled why he even killed them in the first place). The murders themselves are decent enough setpieces (particularly the first one, with the drill and the moron who sees the drill and yet decides to lock herself in a bathroom with a thin door a screwdriver could probably get through), but they are too disjointed to live up to the few other slasher films that existed prior to Friday the 13th.

The movie has some... UNUSUAL editing at times. I can't say it's outright bad, because there are a number of interesting techniques that couldn't have been easy in this pre-digital editing world, such as when a corpse is laid out exactly like the killer's daughter's body was when she was killed in a car accident - we see footage from both scenes cut rapid-fire back and forth, further selling the similarity. I also liked the quick cutting during the famous "bathtub" sequence - as the masturbating woman in said bathtub gets closer to climax, they begin cutting faster and faster to different angles of her. But other times the editing is just painfully clunky, particularly in the opening scene of the car crash. It's very confusing, awkwardly blocked (at one point they cut from one angle of the ambulance to another angle that's only about 10 degrees different), and not the best way to start off a film. If this was the B picture of a drive-in double bill, I can easily imagine people watching this first 90 seconds and saying "screw this" and leaving early to beat traffic.

Director Dennis Donnelly never helmed another feature; this is the only non-TV show credit in his directing filmography (he did do 2nd unit stuff on other features, however). However, writer Ann Kindberg (yes, this was co-written by a woman) has had a pretty laudable career, producing a number of TV shows, including Private Practice and The Shield. This is the type of movie where I expected to look at the resumes of the key personnel and see next to no other credits, so that was a nice surprise. I say they all get together and try to improve on one of Tobe Hooper's lesser films, in order to even things out. There are certainly plenty to choose from.

What say you?


  1. The remake of this one po'd me quite a bit. I was actually up for a part (Which I didn't get, so take heart sweetie. You are not the only one out there who doesn't recognize a good thing when you see it.). The original is a far better film in every way. Also, I doubt I am the only one who dreams of being marooned naked on a desert island with Cameron Mitchell. I am willing to bet that you secretly do too. Of course in your case there would have to also be a brewery on the island I'm sure.

  2. While I do enjoy your shtick, I am puzzled by all of the beer/drunk "slams"? I don't really drink a lot. It makes more sense to mock me for my poor eating habits. Just FYI. Love your work.

  3. As a Cameron Mitchell aficionado, you might want to check out the 1980 "Silent Scream." I always thought it was a half a cut above the generic slashers if only because the kids have distinguishable personalities. Mitchell's part isn't big, but I'm betting you enjoy it. (And it's only 87 minutes long.)

    Been a fan of yours for a while now; I love your take on things, even when I don't agree.

  4. I did!


  5. I can't imagine who can watch this movie in 2012 and think its good.

    Aside from the opening killing sprees, which is admittedly good 70's horror fun, the remainder of the "story" is a series of subplots that go nowhere, are abandoned wholesale, and have no effect on the finale in any way.

    The killer's diatribes about "bad" people goes on FOREVER to the point where any power they may have had is sucked away through sheer unending repetition.

    And when the kidnapped girl finally gets the upper hand for the big final girl showdown, she reaches for the knife...boom! cut to shot of her walking in blood-stained clothes under a text that explains this is a true story and the girl had to go into therapy because of it. Lame!

  6. First of all BC!!!I am a great fan of you!!I watched "toolbox murders" and those things which were questioning me is penned out by you neatly in the article.I completely agree with u and it was not bad at all.It was good in the opening murders.


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