Review: The Toolbox Murders (1978)

1978's The Toolbox Murders comes near the very end of the seventies grindhouse horror scene, arriving amidst the glut of ultra-low-budget shock-fests that followed 1974's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but still predating the slasher cycle that would dominate the 1980s. The title is deceptively simple, though accurate: a ski-masked killer stalks an apartment complex and kills women with implements from his box of tools, including a nail gun, a hammer, and a drill. Freud would have a field day with that symbolism, but is there more to this Video Nasty than meets the eye? 

On the page, The Toolbox Murders is not particularly remarkable. It was conceived--as all exploitation movies are--primarily as a way to make money. The producers had seen the wild success of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and wanted in on the box office action themselves, so they crafted a story that could be shot with a very small budget (reportedly somewhere between $165,000 and $200,000) and brought to life quickly, using real locations. But in the process of bringing in the human element, the story goes from rote splatter spectacle to something altogether more interesting and memorable. 

Director Dennis Donnelly came from television, having made a name for himself behind the camera on the TV hits Hawaii Five-O, Adam-12, and Emergency. Television directors work constantly and become adept at the process of knocking out shots quickly and efficiently, as well as using the smaller scope to focus on characters, so Donnelly was a great choice for The Toolbox Murders, which is almost entirely a character piece. 

The cast list consists of several young performers who were also coming from television: Former child actor Pamelyn Ferdin was cast as the film's teenage protagonist, and had been a staple on television screens throughout the sixties and seventies appearing in everything from Star Trek and Family Affair to Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, Shazam!, and Space Academy. She had even been the voice of Lucy in several Charlie Brown television specials. Co-lead Wesley Eure had also come from the small screen, making a splash as one of the regular cast members of Sid and Marty Krofft's Land of the Lost. Eager to sink his teeth into something meatier, The Toolbox Murders provided him the opportunity to veer as far away from children's programming as he could get. 

However, the real star of The Toolbox Murders--and one of the reasons the movie is remembered and celebrated to this day--is Cameron Mitchell. The actor had been working since the 1940s, appearing in westerns, noirs, and big studio musicals while co-starring alongside the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Gary Cooper, and Clark Gable. He had starred in Death of a Salesman on Broadway and on the big screen, and had even been directed by greats like Sam Fuller and John Ford. As with many actors of his generation in later, leaner times, Mitchell chose to take work that may not have been the most distinguished in an effort to keep the money coming in. The benefit is that this low-budget horror film has an incredible actor anchoring everything around him. When the script didn't give him much to play with, he brought his own quirks to the role, from the constant humming as he goes about his work to a penchant for lollipops. 

Of course, another reason The Toolbox Murders is still remembered today is because it was so controversial. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre shows very little on-screen violence or gore, but this film lingers on every murder and victim, going as far as to use slow motion in a few scenes. The camera holds on every drilling and screwdriver stabbing as long as possible, filling the screen with as much blood and nudity as the censors would allow. It was too much for the cinematic establishment; in the UK, the BBFC banned the movie from 1982 to 2000. In the U.S., it was deemed vile by 60 Minutes, Variety, and even The L.A. Times. Yet this outrage is a big reason the movie was a success and remains taboo cinema even today (controversy always creates cash), though the shocks have long since been surpassed in pop culture. 

Now The Toolbox Murders has come to 4K thanks to Blue Underground, and the results are magnificent. The new restoration looks beautifully filmic (well, as beautiful as a film shot under harsh florescent lights in drab, tacky interiors can look, but that's a testament to Gary Graver's direction of photography) and carries a healthy grain structure and color depth thanks to Dolby Vision HDR. Viewers have a choice between three audio tracks: a new Dolby Atmos track, a 5.1 mix, and 1.0 mono. The new supplements are worth the price of admission and include a new audio commentary by Troy Howarth and Nathaniel Thompson, which joins the previously-released commentary by producer Tony DiDio, cinematographer Gary Graver, and Star Pamelyn Ferdin. 

There are a whopping five new featurettes on the included Blu-ray (which includes the film in 1080p), two of which were made for the 2017 88 Films Blu-ray release of the movie and three of which appear to have never been presented on any disc before. First is an interview with director Dennis Donnelly who discusses his work on television, getting the job, and how it impacted his career (this is his only film). Donnelly is a TV giant, and hearing his experiences on the film as well as behind the scenes of Hawaii Five-O is a real treat. 

Next up is a lengthy interview with Wesley Eure in which he discusses his desire to break out of the family friendly roles that he'd been associated with (in addition to Land of the Lost, he also starred in the Hanna-Barbera-produced robot dog movie C.H.O.M.P.S.--also bound for Blu-ray--around the same time) and how the total immersion into the darkness required for this film had lasting psychological ramifications for him, with a cloud of doom and gloom hanging over him even after shooting had ended. He also tells a fascinating story about how The Toolbox Murders saved his life during an encounter at Venice Beach. 

One of the most discussed scenes of the film--and perhaps the most memorable scene of its type since Psycho--is a bathtub murder that stars Kelly Nichols aka Marianne Walter, and a new half hour interview with the actress details how she transitioned from modeling into acting, and then from acting into adult films. Nichols is completely honest and transparent about her career and appreciative of the opportunities that the this film afforded her, opening the door to a lifestyle in which she seems to have no regrets. 

Next is my favorite special feature on the disc, a 25-minute interview with film historian David Del Valle with a focus on Cameron Mitchell. Del Valle, who knew Mitchell, discusses everything from the actor's pedigree to his trouble with the IRS, making comparisons to Vincent Price as an actor who came from A-list films and ended up in camp territory, but would always show up and wasn't capable of phoning it in. His assessment of The Toolbox Murders is practical and grounded, accurately noting that it isn't particularly well-written or directed and is mostly remembered for the outrage around it. Del Valle also recounts some incredible stories about Mitchell that include some true behind the scenes Hollywood dirt and a particular reminiscence about what happened behind the scenes of the film The Klansman, in which Mitchell co-starred alongside Richard Burton, Lee Marvin, and Elizabeth Taylor. I'll save the story for the viewer to discover themselves, but it involves copious amounts of Jack Daniels, getting black-out drunk, and mistaking a public pool for a toilet. Del Valle is a walking encyclopedia of Hollywood history, especially of the B-movie variety, and he touches on everything from Mario Bava to Herschel Gordon Lewis in the featurette, navigating decades of gossip and bringing us right back to where our tour started in his conclusion. 

A new video essay by Amanda Reyes, the author and editor of the book Are You in the House Alone: A TV Movie Compendium 1964-1999, takes a much deeper and more personal look. Because Reyes is an authority on TV movies, her understanding of both the themes of the film and the production itself are fascinating, and her essay is an interesting follow-up to Del Valle's take on the movie because it shows just how much art is in the eye of the beholder. Reyes explores the isolation, loneliness, grief, and pervasive pain in the movie, plumbing the depths of the characters and their motivations while also exploring the roots and consequences of tragedy, noting that violence begets violence. It's a stunning piece of criticism that has me thinking about the film in new ways beyond the exploitation entertainment goals of its creators. Is relatable sadness one of the reasons The Toolbox Murders endures over four decades after its release? Reyes always impresses me in her commentaries with her ability to peel away the layers and expose the most human, vulnerable aspects of characters I thought I knew. 

A new gallery of posters and stills is included, as well as an older interview with Kelly Nichols/Marianne Walter that goes back to at least the 2002 DVD release, plus TV and radio spots. A limited edition slipcover is included with the first pressing only and features the same artwork as the Blu-ray art wrap. 

I'm not sure that The Toolbox Murders is any sort of a masterpiece, even by low budget horror standards, but it's a gruesome exploitation picture that's elevated by competent direction from Dennis Donnelly and cinematographer Gary Graver, and features as stellar performance from Cameron Mitchell who was brings decades of class and dark charm to the picture. There's a reason the film has received a 4K UHD release in 2022, and thanks to a beautiful new transfer and copious new features that really are essential, fans of the movie now have another, even better edition to add to their collection. 

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