The Toolbox Murders (1978) Review
The Toolbox Murders was directed by Dennis Donnelly (The D.A., Adam-12), written by Neva Friedenn (Sweater Girls, Honey Trap), Robert Easter (Red Sun Rising, Kiss Toledo Goodbye), and Ann Kindberg (Private Practice, Mr. Murder), and stars Nicolas Beauvy (Take Down, Hog Wild), Wesley Eure (Land of the Lost, Days of Our Lives), Cameron Mitchell (Without Warning, Low Blow), Tim Donnelly (The Secret of Santa Vittoria, Emergency!), Don Diamond (F Troop, Breezy), Aneta Corsaut (The Andy Griffith Show, Return to Mayberry), and Pamelyn Ferdin (Space Academy, Happy Birthday Wanda June). It follows two men as they investigate the recent murders of women in their apartment complex.
The Plot: If the little synopsis I usually do sounds even simpler than normal, that’s because The Toolbox Murders is a profoundly thin film in the plot department, even for grindhouse fare. You get what’s on the tin.
Someone has just killed a series of women in an apartment building, and officers Jamison (Donnelly) and Cameron (Diamond) are at a complete loss for suspects and clues, especially because the building’s owner, Vance (Mitchell, unusually disinterested), is equally lost. For those tenants who hope that the killer will be quickly apprehended and those viewers who’d like a bit of story, fortune isn’t in their favour, as more murders are committed. However, an oddity presents itself when Laurie (Ferdin) is instead kidnapped, and her mother Joanne (Corsaut) is left alive. Friedenn, Easter, and Kindberg generate some mystery quickly but abandon it just as fast, making it a wonder why they bothered in the first place.
Because the killer kidnapped his sister and killed his mother, Joey (Beauvy) joins with Vance’s nephew Kent (Eure, looking like a young Ray Liotta), which for some reason gets them in trouble with the cops, effectively jettisoning traditional procedural from The Toolbox Murders; instead the young men do the hunting. While details are passed around during the middle stretch, nothing changes in the plot, making the effort narratively static until the killer is revealed. After this, there’s a nonsensical twist and subsequent third act for the sake of it – which is something – but in this case, sticking with something that gels with what came before, even at the cost of banality would’ve been a better option.
Expecting a good plot out of a slasher is a bad idea, but hoping for a plot at all is fair enough. The Toolbox Murders is one of those that has pretenses of one, but ultimately ditches it.
The Characters: Little is done to develop or even personify most of the cast, and with Donnelly’s direction, even less is done by the performers to make even the leads all that interesting.
It’s about half an hour into The Toolbox Murders until a main character is decided on, and apart from his familial connection to the events of the past few days, Joey may as well be another random tenant. He doesn’t have the best relationship with either his sister (who he’s easily upset with) or his mother (emotionally distant and physically absent from her kids), but that doesn’t mean he’s just going to let go of what’s happening. The intention is to get some righteous anger out of the kid, but Beauvy doesn’t sell it, and without more substantial writing, the movie doesn’t either.
Kent is a prime example of that old genre standby of the morbidly interested observer, casually shrugging off the brutal details of the deaths and treating the aftermath like mere messes. In this case, that’s partially true since Vance hired him as a part-time cleaner for the complex, but that hardly spurs attachment to the character. The relationship between him and his uncle is later clarified, but by this point, there’s too little runtime to mold it into something beyond shock value.
Even though the killer isn’t hard to guess, they should still remain anonymous here. As a character, their backstory of a deceased daughter doesn’t get linked in any logical way to their propensity for murder. Sure, they kidnap Laurie, but that doesn’t line up with a motive that is later revealed. They’re just a load of tropes haphazardly thrown into a character. With how long Donnelly abstains from introducing characters, he may as well have never done so.
The Horror: Points can certainly be given to The Toolbox Murders for living up to its rather direct title, but that only lasts for the first third of the movie, with terror tapering off soon after.
Variety is certainly present in regard to the killer’s instruments, but it’s how the spree is framed that gives it impact. None of the four initial victims catch onto the fact that there’s a murderer on the loose, leading to several instances of seeing a masked figure methodically choosing from hammers, a power drill, and a screwdriver before being skewered with no reason presented. The first few kills themselves aren’t all that special or even gruesome, but the endcap is memorable, with an extended sequence of the killer firing a nail gun at a woman who was just moments ago taking a bath. It’s a lurid, yet strong opening.
Unfortunately, the filmmakers forget to maintain an air of scares, with the murders stopping for the next 45 minutes, and the director doesn’t even attempt to keep the characters or the audience convinced that another could happen at any moment, ruining the suspense that came from the beginning. A few more murders happen in the last 15 minutes, but these are dented by the fact that a constant stream of exposition is flowing between them. Although this does attempt to clarify the killer’s motives (which somehow jump from their daughter’s death to religious mania), it never taps into the psychological horror beyond the surface level.
Despite being labelled a ‘video nasty’ for a few years following its release, The Toolbox Murders is only nasty for its first third, leaving no lasting (or current) mark of terror after its title quota has been met.
The Technics: Coming from a TV background has its positives and negatives, and Donnelly is a good example of both. Ably filling a 45-minute show slot but struggling to make the right decisions for a 94-minute film.
Frontloading the feature certainly builds anticipation, but The Toolbox Murders doesn’t have the budget or script (despite having three writers) to sustain itself to the end. However, cinematographer Gary Graver (Trick or Treats, Deathsport) (a frequent collaborator with Orson Welles) manages to make tenement halls, courtyards, and apartments appealing to the eye, an impressive feat in any case. A soft lighting style and using a narrow frame keep the feature from looking like every other slasher of the era. This isn’t to say The Toolbox Murders is vastly different in appearance, but it has flashes of uniquity in its visuals.
With a reputation that stems from its time being banned in the UK, surprisingly, the makeup effects by Edward Ternes (Brainstorm, Kentucky Fried Movie) aren’t all that special, with most of the action taking place out of view and ending up with blood coating the surrounding area. There are a few shots of a hammer hitting a head, but Donnelly’s film is a rather tame one in its violence as compared to its usage of nudity. That skin is just a distraction from the deficiencies of the rest of the film, which lacks the funds to set itself apart.
A half-baked twist, boring characters, and bad technical merits keep The Toolbox Murders in line with its contemporaries. With an interesting setting and a stirring first third, it shows promise but loses steam faster than it can drill a victim.