Last of the Monster Kids

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Sunday, July 24, 2016

Director Report Card: Tobe Hooper (2004)

18. Toolbox Murders

In 2003, Hollywood remade Tobe Hooper’s most iconic movie. The next year, he decided to return the favor in a round about sort of way. His next feature would be a remake too. Tobe would put his own spin on “The Toolbox Murders,” a 1978 exploitation cult classic that was inspired by Hooper’s own “Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” Instead of just using a chainsaw to reek murderous havoc, the delightfully cheap and sleazy flick utilized every tool in the toolbox. Hooper’s version drops the declarative article and most everything else too. While “Toolbox Murders” only received a limited theatrical release, the reviews were some of the best Hooper had seen in years.

Recently married couple Nell and Steven Barrows have just moved into Lusman Arms, a crumbling apartment complex in the heart of Los Angeles’ film distract. They have trouble integrating themselves among the fighting couples, apathetic staff, and would-be movie stars living there. As Steven has a demanding job at a near-by hospital, Nell is often left alone. The strange behavior of her neighbors, including a few disappearances, prompt her to look into the apartment’s history. She discovers an entire separate building hidden inside the hotel. Living there is a deformed killer kept alive by the eccentric architecture of the building. Nell must escape the murderer and the long list of tools he uses to kill.

The original “Toolbox Murders” has its place in horror history. The original is most infamous for its opening cascade of misogynistic gore. Within the span of about a half-hour, the ski-mask clad killer graphically murders four women with a drill, a screwdriver, a hammer, and a nail gun. For extra exploitation value, lots of gratuitous nudity and sex is included. The rest of the movie is a relatively stodgy mystery with a foregone conclusion. In other words, it’s a good candidate for a remake, a film with a few memorable elements that doesn’t work as a whole. 2004’s “Toolbox Murders” keeps the setting, the killer’s look, a few of the kills, and nothing else. Hooper’s take instead spins the story in a wildly different direction.

Another way the original “Toolbox Murders” emulates “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” is a bogus claim that the story was based on true events. The remake doesn’t bother with this. However, it does start with blank text pointing out that lots of people head to California in search of fame. And some of them disappear. Early on, the apartment manager claims Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia herself, once lived there. Two of the residents of the Lusman Arms are actors, hoping to break into Hollywood. Julia used to be overweight and obsesses over exercise and dieting. Another tenant, before being claimed by the killer, comes home from a dispiriting audition. The reason the murders have gone undetected for so long is because Los Angeles eats up the young, the hopeful, and the naïve. Nobody notices when they’re gone because so many have come and gone before.

Beyond that, “Toolbox Murders” draws on another aspect for its creepy atmosphere. As soon as Nell and Steven move into their apartment, their neighbors are off-putting. An intimate moment between the couple is interrupted when a neighbor ask if they want to borrow some tea. Later, the couple next door have a loud argument, every shout audible between the paper thin walls. A few days later, the same couple have enthusiastic, loud make-up sex. At one point, Nell calls the cops after hearing violent screaming down the hall. Turns out, one of the actors is just practicing lines. Another interesting reveal shows that the creepy teenager next door is spying on another tenant, via a hidden webcam. The film builds off the anxiety and curiosity of apartment living to create an effectively spooky tone.

Over his long career, across the wild ups and downs of quality, one distinctive attributes unites all of Tobe Hooper’s work. That is an interest in locations, how they relate to the characters and story. The Lusman Arms apartment provides Hooper with some prime real estate. The building is undergoing renovation, meaning nails are constantly being hammered and work is always being done. The wash room in the basement is incredibly creepy, hidden behind brick walls and sudden turns. Dreary lights overhead cast an eerie glow over the entire film. The film even shares some similarities with one of the other highlights from Hooper’s later career. As in “The Apartment Complex,” a missing room number is a plot point. Unlike that film, there’s nothing especially inviting about this apartment complex. The Lusman Arms is a shitty place to live, weird, and off-putting. In other words, a fine location for a horror film.

Despite the bleak setting, there’s a sense of humor in “Toolbox Murders.” The eccentricities of Nell’s neighbors is just as likely to amuse her as upset her. The boredom of having nothing to do during the day gets to her. Soon, she finds an adventure to head out on. Looking at the discrepancies in the building causes her to seek out the blue prints. This leads to a fun, and slightly goofy, conversation with a librarian. After learning that the hotel is full of secret rooms, we’re treated to a montage of her exploring the hotel, knocking on walls. The character is interested in what’s happening and so is the audience, caught up in her infectious energy. 

That “Toolbox Murders” is capable of some goofy fun is important. Aside from the drab setting, the film also features some seriously grisly violence. There are direct homages to the originals. A woman is pinned to the wall with a nail gun. A claw hammer splatters brain matter. A drill bit enters one side of a woman’s head and exits the other. A skull is sliced in half with a buzzsaw. One of the most brutal kills has the killer squeezing a victim’s head in a vice before dousing his face with quicklime. Sometimes, the gore is so excessive that it borders on humorous. The flailing screams of a victim, after getting his spine snapped with some bolt cutters, is almost funny. Meanwhile, there’s some unfortunately fake sound effects in a few other scenes. Still, more often then not, the gore is effectively grisly and memorable, rising above typical slasher movie thrills.

Tobe Hooper’s latter day flicks are rarely scary, never approaching the intensity of “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” or “Poltergeist.” “Toolbox Murders” isn’t as good as those movies. However, the film does show the director having some fun. Yes, there are jump scares. An attacker will jump out and grab someone, loud music blaring on the soundtrack. Several times, Nell bumps into someone, startled and shocked. Despite that, Hooper employs some decent misdirection. When you expect the killer to enter a room through the doorway, he leaps form behind a curtain. One of my favorite gags has the film pointing towards the murderer appearing in a closed mirror. Instead, nothing happens… Which builds towards a more startling scare later, when the attacker bursts through a window. It’s never truly scary but there is a sense of spooky fun, like a haunted house ride.

Starring in “Toolbox Murders” is Angela Bettis. Star of “May,” from fellow Master of Horror Lucky McKee, Bettis was a rising cult star at the time. Obviously, I’m a huge fan. As Nell Barrows, Bettis brings a nervous quality to the part. While snooping around the apartment, investigating the mysteries of the building or checking on her neighbors, she seems genuinely interested or concerned. Bettis isn’t your typical horror starlet. She seems more like a normal person, with a unique personality of her own. Nell is fragile but resourceful, playing up some of Bettis’ greatest strengths. This script isn’t as deep as “May” or “The Woman.” Yet Bettis still makes the most of it, elevating the overall quality of “Toolbox Murders.”

Bettis isn’t the only then up-and-coming scream queen present in “Toolbox Murders.” Sheri Moon Zombie, in her only film role not directed by her husband, appears as the first victim. It’s not much more then a cameo but Moon brings some okay energy to the part. Juliet Landau, of “Buffy” and “Angel” fame, plays Julia. As the deeply insecure and fame hungry young actress, Landau does a lot with a little. Rance Howard, father to Ron and Clint, plays the old man living in the apartment. The character exists mostly to deliver exposition but Howard still establishes some charm. Greg Travis plays the sleazy manager, obviously meant to be the comic relief of the film. There are many other characters in the film, though few of them prove all that interesting. Still, none of the characters or actors are annoying or distracting.

“Toolbox Murders” runs less then ninety minutes, having the good sense to end immediately after the story concludes. Even across that brief run time, the film manages to build up a decent mythology around the killer. Hearkening all the way back to “The Funhouse,” the killer reveals a deformed face when unmasked. Instead of being silent, he possesses an unnerving shriek. The apartment is littered with occult symbols. These runes, along with the architecture of the building, has extended his life. The renovations is threatening this immortality, hence the murders. This is an interesting and unique motivation. (It also recalls concepts Hooper has previously visited in “I’m Dangerous Tonight” and “The Mangler.”) The credits reveal the killers name as Coffin Baby. There’s a brief line of dialogue about this, referencing how he was born in his mother’s grave. It’s an odd last minute decision. Still, it certainly provides a different take on the ski-mask clad maniac.

That mythology was interesting enough to earn “Toolbox Murders” a sequel… Eventually. After nearly a decade in development hell and an extended post-production, including severing all legal connections to this film, “Coffin Baby” a.k.a. “Toolbox Murders 2” finally came out in 2013. By that point, any of the buzz from this movie had worn off. Considering the mediocre-to-awful credits they’ve wracked up – including “Crocodile” – this is also the best work of screenwriter duo Adam Gierasch and Jace Anderson. While far from a masterpiece, “Toolbox Murders” is easily one of the best films Hooper has been involved with in many years. It’s a satisfying, well assembled mixture of slasher flick and supernatural horror. [Grade: B]

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