Ever-present movie-watching pal and podcast co-host JD joined me on Monday for a full afternoon of horror fun. Our triple feature seemed to be linked together by a retro, sleazy dynamic.
The Toolbox Murders (1978)
“The Toolbox Murders” is, in many ways, the definitive seventies exploitation movie. (Or “grindhouse movie,” if you prefer.) It is sleazy, gory, uncomfortable, campy, boring, melodramatic, effortless, completely unpolished, tonally uneven, and only could have been made in the seventies. It is clear that the film’s origins rose out of some skid row producer looking at the numbers “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” made and thinking, “Hell, if that’s what you can do with just a chainsaw, let’s throw the whole toolbox at them!” It even claims to be based on a true story!
The movie’s opening twenty minutes is the stuff of slasher/gorefest legend and, rightfully, earned the movie a spot on the UK’s Video Nasty list. A man enters an apartment complex, at first appearing to be a normal repairman. Soon, he brandishes an electric drill, with a truly scary looking drill bit, and chases the girl around the room. At one point, the killer dons a ski mask, but at an askew angle, distorting the human face even further. A large chested girl in a thin white t-shirt, clearly not wearing a bra, steps into the shower accidentally, wetting her chest, before disrobing further. She gets murdered with a claw hammer. (With the claw end. Because no slasher movie killer ever uses the blunt side of a hammer.) Another girl wanders in, sees the massive rings of blood on the linoleum floor, and is quickly killed with a screwdriver. The film pauses briefly introduces its main heroine, played by kid-star cutie Pamelyn Ferdin, and kidnap her before launching into its most memorable moment. A sultry redhead, with earrings in and in full make-up, played by future porn starlet Kelly Nichols, slips into the bath, a painfully sappy pop-duet playing on the radio. Her hands slowly sneak under the bubbles, an enthusiastic masturbation session beginning. (This sequence prompted JD to say, quote: “Grindhouse movies are great.”) Completely preoccupied with her self-administration, the radio playing loudly, the killer sneaks into her apartment unencumbered. As she reaches screaming orgasm, the man in the mask enters the bathroom, humming along to the music, aiming an old fashion nail gun at her. In what Stephen King called his favorite death scene in a horror movie, the girl runs around the apartment completely buck-ass nude, barely avoiding the flying nails. After, unsuccessfully, attempting to bribe the man with sexual favors (Obviously), she is finally nailed. It’s not enough to kill her though. The injured woman stumbles against a poster of herself hanging on the wall. The super-cheesy love song crescendos on the radio. The man shoots her in the head with the nail gun. Blood and brain matter splatter over the narcissistic poster. The scenes cuts away as blood drips down into her pubes. This is slasher movie pop-art.
“Trilogy of Terror” is the Zuni Fetish Doll, the opening cascade of misogynistic gore is all anyone remembers about “The Toolbox Murder.” It’s far to say the fame peaks early. The rest of the movie is devoted to Ferdin’s brother and the landlord’s nephew investigating the kid sister’s kidnapping. The Scooby-Doo teen sleuthing stuff is dull and skip-able. The movie reveals fairly early that the landlord, B-movie stalwart Cameron Mitchell, is the killer, in a great reveal of the toolbox. He has the girl tied up in his bedroom. While there’s not much to the scenes of Mitchell going on about his dead daughter and how corrupt and impure the world is, it is a joy to see him ham it up. Mitchell goes full-crazy, jumping around, lips quivering, very convincingly playing the kind of traumatized, delusional moralizer that you’d expect to go on a power tools themed murder spree. The plot twist at the start of the third act comes out of nowhere but it also revitalizes the movie. Because you can’t have a true sleaze-murder flick without a little rape, a hugely uncomfortable sexual assault happens. (Thankfully, it’s mostly off-screen.) The story wraps up kind of unsatisfactory while the film tries to convince us it really is based on a true story, no really, seriously guys, we swear.
I could probably go into a long diatribe about why we enjoy films like this, what that says about our culture, my specific generation of young people, why I love this but hated the arguably similarly sexist and stupid “High School of the Dead,” etc. I won’t do that for brevity’s sake. If you’re looking for an introduction into the sleazy, sometimes disturbing world of grindhouse cinema, I don’t think I could find a better one then “The Toolbox Murders.” Buy it on Blu-Ray! It features one of my all time favorite taglines: “Bit by bit… He carved a nightmare!” Someday, I’m going to start a horror-themed metal band and make a song based around that one. [7/10]
The Devil’s Rejects (2005)
Horror and mainstream critics have an odd relationship, especially during the horror revival of the early-to-mid 2000s. Roger Ebert notoriously trashed “Wolf Creek” (and “The Hitcher” and “Hellraiser” in the eighties), but gave “The Devil’s Rejects” one of the most begrudgingly positive reviews I’ve ever read. This odd back-and-forth continues to this day, such as his recent decision that “The Possession” deserved three and a half stars, but “V/H/S,” one of the best horror films of the year, wasn’t worth much of anything. Despite coming right in the middle of the moral panic over "torture porn,” “The Devil’s Rejects” was embraced by a number of critics, even a few who, like Mr. Ebert, normally hate horror movies.
Why did “The Devil’s Rejects” crawl to the top of the pack, even though it’s unapologetically grimy, vulgar, punishingly brutal, and focused almost exclusively on torture? There’s a couple of reason. This film possesses a clear aesthetic. Just as George Lucas built a fully-formed world out of his love for 1950s sci-fi, Rob Zombie has built a cleanly defined universe out of a life-long obsession with 1970 exploitation films and white trash culture. “House of 1000 Corpses” was a psychedelic trip into a nightmarish netherverse made of the same ingredients but this film is far more disciplined. Everything is designed to reflect on the characters and their lives, from the trash and blood strewn homes, down to the roadside motels and pot-lamp whore houses. While he lapses several times into Shaky-Cam-Ville, CGI-Blood-Burg, and Industrial Music Score City, if the film reel was scratched up and ran through a projector, “The Devil’s Rejects” would feel like an authentic, if particularly brutal, 1970s low-budget flick.
a metaphor about 9/11 and the War on Terror in here. I don’t know if that was on Zombie’s mind or not but there is a brain under the grime and torture. Sheriff Wydell, played with laser-point intensity by William Forsythe, quickly steps over the boundaries of reasonable police work in his quest for revenge. I’ve never been sure if the moral switcharoo the movie performs was wholly intentional. The Fireflies are pure monsters and the extended sequence of sadistic torture against the Sullivan and Banjo Band that comprise a large portion of the middle section seem exist primarily to remind us of that. However, once Wydell captures the killers, he puts them through a no-less cruel torture-a-thon. The sequence finishes with a slasher-style stalk-and-slash. Sheri Moon, formally a cackling murderess, is now the quivering, crying final girl, at the mercy of an axe wielding mad man. This movie brilliantly has the audience repulsed by characters one minute and cheering for them the next. The reason I’m unsure of all of this is I don’t think Zombie is, like Hitchcock, intentionally trying to get us to relate to sadistic killers out of a perverse sense of humor and desire to undermine the moral status-qua. He’s making a point about the all-consuming fire of revenge but he doesn’t think violence or revenge is bad. The real reason we relate to the Fireflies is because Rob Zombie loves them and wants you to love them too.
And that’s the real reason I think critics and horror fans alike loved “The Devil’s Rejects.” Its characters are fascinating. Zombie has made it clear over the course of his four films that he relates to serial killers, freaks, madman, and weirdos far more then he does to normal human beings. (Why else do you think he made Michael Myers the main character in the “Halloween” remake?) Unlike in “House,” he never bothers to introduce normal people into the fray, at least not as anything but meat-sack victims. The most endearing scenes don’t revolve around the characters doing much of anything. An argument about ice cream, a fiery debate about Groucho Marx, the politics of running a whore house or chicken/human relations, discussing life on the road over a plate of coke, these moments don’t advance the plot. But they do reveal our cast as human beings with thoughts and opinions. The unendingly profane dialogue is hugely over-the-top but frequently hilarious and quotable. Yeah, Otis, Baby, and Captain Spalding brutally torture, murder, and rape people. That’s just what they do, man. They’re free birds, as the perfect retro-redneck-rock soundtrack reminds us. Watching the classic films of the 1930s this month has reminded me that all horror films are about outsiders. “The Devil’s Rejects” continues this proud tradition by focusing on society’s biggest outsiders: Serial killers on the fringe of sanity.
The ending shouldn’t work. The characters flashing back to happier times, frolicking together in a field, set to the strainingly earnest chords of Skynard, should be nothing less then ridiculous. Yet it’s so damn sincere. It’s exactly as stirring and heart-breaking as it should be. Enough gushing. “The Devil’s Rejects” has aged fantastically. It’s a signature piece of work. [9/10]
Student Bodies (1981)
Now let’s blow off some steam with a goofy slasher movie parody, shall we? It says a lot about the subgenre that, even as early as 1981, writers and producers realized that slasher films were largely composed of a pre-assembled selection of clichés and stereotypes. “Student Bodies” predates “Scream” and “Scary Movie” (And even “Bloody Movie” and “There’s Nothing Out There”) as picking out and making fun of the rules of the genre. Teenage males are always thinking about sex, no matter how incongruous the setting. The adults and authority figures are blazingly clueless and unhelpful. The killer, when not breathing heavily and monologing his ridiculous actions, kills people in the most absurd of ways. I mean, absurd even by the standards of a genre that includes Jason punching a dude’s head off his shoulders. Virginal final girl Toby, along with her androgynous name, wears buttons that say “NO!” in big letters on her bra. When sleuthing through a file, like a final girl is prone to do, she comes upon a piece of paper that says “Look in the other draw!”
Many of the gags brilliantly mock the genre. A flashing running tally appears on screen with every kill. Floating graphics and text point out suspects and foolish mistakes the characters have made. Any time a phone is picked up, we hear the killer’s heavy breathing on the other end. The villain disguises his voice by talking through a rubber chicken. A meowing cat turns out to be a meowing (gassy) dog. The movie is set on Halloween, Friday the 13th, the night of the big game, big parade, and prom. (And, finally, the big funeral.) Surprisingly, some of the best gags in the movie have nothing to do with the horror genre. The oddball high school principal is prone to delivering lines like “All these years, I’ve secretly been naked underneath my clothes” or “Hasn't there been enough senseless killing? Let's have a murder that makes sense!” with a straight-face worthy of Leslie Nielson. The nutty psychologist takes a minute to rearrange all the items in his room before sitting down and saying “Someone’s been in my office.” The workshop teacher is obsessed with horse head bookends, the film’s most goofily odd gag. The football game is played between a group of small children and giant black men. There’s a drawl full of marbles. The biggest laugh might come when the movie literally stops just so a censor can have a direct word with the audience. Many of the best gags belong to Malvert the Janitor, your typical red-herring oddball. This guy is inexplicable. He stands somewhere around 6’3, looks even taller because he’s rail thin, has really long limps and hands, the loosest joints I’ve ever seen, and is played by an actor credited only as “The Stick.” His overbearing weirdness sets up one of the best gags in the movie during the post-prom reveal. (To those who have seen the film: “Absurd!”)