Filmmakers large and small have seen that audiences will flock to practically anything they get a rise out of, so cheaply produced horror films can turn a nifty profit while dishing out very little cash behind-the-scenes. The formula for success is crafted that suggests when you put some reasonably attractive young people in jeopardy – and maybe flash a boob or a butt to fill in otherwise missing plot points – people will plunk down a few bucks in exchange for a meagerly produced spectacle. A good time will be had by all.
Flicks like The Toolbox Murders were frequent attractions for moviegoers of that kinda/sorta bygone era. They filled up the hometown cinemas, and the mom-and-pop video rental outlets that opened their doors in 1977 had shelves rich with similar fare. Though many of these features have yet to see the light of day in the past ten years or so (when the marketplace shifted most heavily from retail to streaming), they’re starting to make a bit of a comeback from specialty distributors like Arrow Video, Shout Factory, and Blue Underground.
These films may not be that good. They aren’t particular well made. They bring no heavy social commentary to the forefront. Instead, they seek to only entertain for the 90 minutes they’re played. That’s all they were intended to do.
I like to think there’s a bit of nobility in that … even when it involves a bit of premeditated violence.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the product packaging:
“In a quiet apartment complex in Los Angeles, a deranged handyman goes on a killing spree, savagely murdering ‘immoral’ women with the tools of his trade – claw-hammers, screwdrivers, power drills and even a deadly nail gun! But these gruesome massacres are just the beginning of this landmark epic of violence and depravity that was vilified by critics, banned by censors, and treasured by splatter fans worldwide.”
Yes, Murders stirred up a bit of controversy in its day. Some nations censored it from distribution (an act which inevitably makes more folks want to see it in secret, will those folks never learn!), and I’ve read that its producers were called out in articles about the glorification of violence against women. Having seen this twice, I’d argue like the producers did that there’s not much adoration of bloodshed: in fact, much of it is handled somewhat tepidly. Our killer doesn’t celebrate these murders while in the act; he’s a cool tactician merely carrying out his plan. I would say that once the guilty parties are revealed there’s a bit more exposition about the who’s, how’s, and why’s; but those moments were needed to establish motivation and psychosis. Without a speech here or there, these would’ve been just senseless murders on the silver screen, and that would’ve strayed a bit closer to glorifying these actions.
Respectfully, I think Murders is, at best, a guilty pleasure for those who like to revel in a bit of horrific splatter. It approaches every plot point with an almost workman-like simplicity, never going in for gory effects or fancy camera angles. The kills are even a bit clumsy in places – perhaps elevating the reality factor these storytellers intended – and only a palatable amount of blood is shed. I suppose some might take issue with the fact that the toolman’s victims are all great looking, but even the plot summary explains that the killer had his reasons for choosing those he did.
The Toolbox Murders (1978) was produced by Cal-Am Productions. DVD distribution (for this particular release) is being handled by the very reliable Blue Underground. As for the technical specifications? This 4K restoration looks and sounds very good; there’s a bit of grain in a few places, but overall I suspect this is as good as this thriller has probably ever looked. As for the special features? Yowza! Blue Underground has once again pulled out all the stops with this two-disc edition which offers up two commentaries (one older, one new); a handful of newly produced behind-the-scenes shorts; a few older items most likely ported over from earlier releases; and a bevy of promotional materials for those who like that sort of thing. Seriously, Blue Underground has made some impressive steps forward in celebrating some of these smaller pictures from days gone by, and they should be commended.
Recommended but only for folks who enjoy true exploitation fare because, otherwise, there’s very little substance to appreciate in The Toolbox Murders. The film was promoted as being based on true events, but any research I’ve done into it suggests that the script only loosely picks up and runs with facts involving a man and his – ahem – tools. The film retains a bit of novelty by taking a few actors (Cameron Mitchell, Wesley Eure, and Pamelyn Ferdin) of the era and giving them some solid face time, but otherwise it’s low key and a bit half-baked.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Blue Underground provided me with a complimentary Blu-ray oof The Toolbox Murders by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.