Toolbox Murders, The (US - BD)
Gabe nails this Blu-ray review. Get it? He NAILS it. See, because the toolbox...
A quiet Los Angeles apartment complex is rocked when a ski-masked psychopath goes on a late night killing spree using implements from his favourite toolbox. The same thing happens the next night, and the residents begin to suspect it might be an inside job. Then a girl is kidnapped. The gory mess leads a couple of amateur detectives to the most obvious guilty party in the history of murder mysteries.
Without being particularly graphic or gory The Toolbox Murders manages to be one of the most unpleasant films to ever come out of the United States. Concerning actual theatrical releases we may be talking top ten here. Facts to the contrary, the film appears to be a massive misunderstanding of the early slasher genre that confuses bloodletting and heavy-handed puritan morals for something that struck a serious chord with American theatregoers. The fact is that the popularity of the genre had a lot more to do with the magic trick and roller coaster aspects of the tropes, not the grotesqueries of the characters. Of course, the film pre-dates Friday the 13th, and was probably being conceived and filmed before Halloween became a hit, so its real inspirations were clearly proto-slashers like Last House on the Left and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (ironically enough, Chainsaw Massacre director Tobe Hopper directed a Toolbox Murders remake in 2004). The ‘based on a true story’ angle (which is entirely untrue) is clearly an attempt at capturing some of that lightning at the box office. In this respect the film still mostly fails, but clearly gets the value of the dark survival horror, and rape/revenge melodramas, even if it doesn’t quite mimic them effectively.
The Toolbox Murders is unfortunately not quite good enough to transcend its unpleasantness. Films like Bill Lustig’s Maniac succeed in being so pointedly unpleasant the audience is forced to deal with the ugliness, like a shadow of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver fed through the eyes of Friday the 13th. Cameron Mitchell’s deliciously twisted and overwrought performance aside, there’s no reason to care about his character, and he’s not human enough to want to understand his motivations outside of the most one dimensional readings. There’s little suspense, little surprise, and little shock to the proceedings, and the technical aspects are so rough there’s no real joy to the project. The bigger issue is that the murders are almost all delegated to the first third of the film, and after that things devolve into a disappointing mix of character study and mystery film. The only thing worse than an exceedingly unpleasant movie is a boring one, even if Mitchell’s lollypop slurping monologue is an oddly moving bit of acting.
The film isn’t entirely artless, and does feature some interesting aural juxtapositions during the carnage (the indifference of the background music to the early murders is pretty intriguing), but we’re mostly talking base level exploitation for base level exploitation’s sake. The violence isn’t particularly protracted, at least not compared to the stuff the Italians were churning out at the same time, but the time spent with women changing clothes or bathing is unmistakably an excuse to titillate. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, I’ve just seen it done both more disturbingly and more attractively. There is something to be said for director Dennis Donnelly’s static camera work, and the long, lifeless takes, which create a likely intended voyeuristic quality, but much of the film’s ‘value’ comes out of unintended awkwardness. At times the whole thing feels a bit more like an improvised stage play than a grindhouse release.
The most notorious scene (the one that likely got the film in hot water with the BBFC) comes just before the thirty minute mark, and it is a perfectly notable sample of the delightfully un-PC American grindhouse, not to mention the chief reason the film begs at least one viewing from the horror elite. In the scene camera watches longing and lustfully as an attractive woman (future adult film star Marianne Walter) crawls into the bath, and proceeds to masturbate just below the surface of the soap bubbles. The soundtrack blurts a joyously inappropriate love song apparently written specifically for the actress. During her climax director Dennis Donnelly breaks with his lack of editing, and feverishly intercuts two different angles of her orgasming face. But before she or her audience have any chance to bask in the afterglow, the masked killer waltzes into the bathroom with a nail gun, and gives chase. The woman tries to run, then tries to talk her way out of the situation, but in the end she’s left dead and nude, with a nail in the brain, and her eyes wide open in fear.
Blue Underground once again waves their magic wand and spits out another impossibly good looking 1080p Blu-ray. The Toolbox Murders isn’t the massive success that the studio’s New York Ripper release was, but the transfer is nonetheless very impressive given the film’s grungy origins. The film is largely under-lit, and the focus pulling is inconsistent, but it’s a 35mm master, so there’s room for improvement over the studio’s DVD release. The print is pretty darn grainy, but the grain is pretty finely represented, and digital compression artefacts are no longer an issue. The colours are a little washed out, but less so than the VHS or DVD versions of the film. Some of the brighter warm hues bleed a little bit into the harsher whites, but the greens are incredibly lush, and the blacks are perfectly black. Some of the most low-lit scenes feature pretty thick noise, almost definable as snow, and sometimes these shots suck the warmth out of the skin tones and clothing colours. Details are sharper than the DVD release as well, and sharp without any really noticeable edge-enhancement, but viewers looking for super-fine bits are going to be largely disappointed. As stated, sometimes the focus goes a little wonky during close-ups, but detail consistency is otherwise even throughout the print. In the end the excessive grain will be an issue for viewers not visually tuned to older genre films, but overall there’s nothing else we can say.
This particular surround sound redesign represents one of the more subtle and appropriate in Blue Underground’s history, comparable to their recent New York Ripper release. The majority of the film is still presented in the centre channel, but incidental effects, echoes, and music occasionally make their way to the stereo and surround channels without drawing too much attention to themselves. The clarity of this DTS-HD 7.1 track is comparably much sharper than the well preserved original mono track (which is also presented here for completists). The slight widening of the front channel and presence of an LFE make just enough difference. Things are definitely not perfect, or entirely consistent. The dialogue is a little muffled, and the effects levels are up and down throughout the film, as should be expected from such material. The bigger effects and music can also slightly vary from shot to shot. During the masturbation scene the musical track features some distorted vocal effects, but since the music is source during the scene this can be seen as the effect of the not so good radio being used on set. All in all, however, this is just about as great as The Toolbox Murders can and will ever sound.
Note: the film ends with the main theme played out in its entirety over a black screen.
The extras, which are ported from the studio’s previous special edition DVD release, are more or less in-keeping with Blue Underground’s style and breadth. Things begin with the most indelible extra, a commentary track with producer Tony DiDio, DP Gary Graver, and actress Pamelyn Ferdin. Didio is the track’s most valuable and outspoken participant. The most interesting aspect of the entire track comes when the producer describes the oodles of free publicity the film got from the likes of outraged media outlets like 60 Minutes. Much of his discussion is from a money maker’s point of view, and director Dennis Donnelly’s input would likely be more interesting all together, but Graver and Ferdin add some good points here and there. A pleasant and honest retrospective overall, and a good listen for the film’s detractors. The extras are finished out with ‘I Got Nailed in The Toolbox Murders’ (8:00, SD) an interview with actress Marianne Walter (pretty entertaining), a trailer, a TV spot, and two radio spots.
Far from a ‘must own’ for the average Blu-ray owner, Toolbox Murders continues Blue Underground’s wonderful tradition of giving the dregs of filmdom the all-star treatment. This time the film’s origins overcome the studio’s ability to create stunning transfer, but the improvements are plenty obvious, and the DTS-HD audio track is clean, without the common disturbance of added stereo and surround elements. The extras feature no new surprises for fans that already own the studio’s DVD release, but are perfectly adequate and entertaining. That makes how many of the original Video Nasties available in high definition, again?
*Note: These images were taken from the Blu-ray and resized to fit the page, to see the full sized images visit AndersonVision.com. Thanks to Troy Anderson for the help.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 26th January 2010
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 EX English, Dolby Digital Mono English
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras: Producer/DP/Actress Commentary, I Got Nailed in The Toolbox Murders, Trailer, TV Spots, Radio Spots
Easter Egg: No
Director: Dennis Donnelly
Cast: Cameron Mitchell, Wesley Eure, Aneta Corseut, Marrianne Walter and Pamelyn Ferdin
Length: 94 minutes
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