The Toolbox Murders (1978)

Bit by bit by bit… He carved a nightmare!

That’s what the promotional materials said to sell this week’s featured B-Movie Enema movie, The Toolbox Murders.  It was also marketed as a dramatization of a true crime spree perpetrated by a serial killer.  Think of it like what Tobe Hooper did with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  In fact, scratch that…  This movie is directly connected with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in a much more direct way.

It’s not like anyone making The Toolbox Murders were associated with TCM.  Oh no…  This is classic exploitation sleaze that will forever connect these two movies.   You see, producer Tony Didio noticed that a second release of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1977 was particularly successful.  So, he decided he wanted in on that.  He showed the movie to his writers and told them one simple thing:

“Gimme something exactly like that chainsaw movie.”

And there you have it…  The Toolbox Murders is birthed by writers Ann Kindberg and Robert Easter.  However, things don’t quite go the same way as Tobe Hooper’s big slasher flick.  The movie does open with a little bit of attention thrust upon it.  However, where Hooper’s movie has something very enticing about its very realistic grittiness and implied gore (despite nothing in the movie matches the imagination that can come with a gore budget of later sequels and remakes), Didio’s produced horror flick directed by Dennis Donnelly had a very different reaction with viewers.

In a series of reactions that you’d almost think was contemporary, The Toolbox Murders faced heavy criticism for very misogynistic views on how it dealt with violence toward women.  It’s also decried as an overly violent and sleazy by film critics.  Naturally, it was also labeled as a “video nasty” in Britain which basically either completely banned a movie or heavily edited it to fit some sort of perceived code put into place by some old busy body broad who thought her moral authority knew best.  Here, in America, it would just kind of disappear and eventually fade into dusty video store shelves among literal hundreds of horror flicks to be released over the next couple decades.

In time, though, it started getting noticed again.  Thanks to a mostly solid cast, good gore effects, somewhat competent direction from a television pro, and a decent amount of proper tone, the film is thought of something of an exploitation classic in the horror genre of the gritty 70s.  But I also mentioned a very important word in that previous sentence – exploitation.  What used to be a term that often made people think fans were likely either weirdos or actual dangerous people isn’t looked at the same way anymore.

Soon, there were people in search of these oddball movies like The Toolbox Murders, among other exploitation movies from the golden age of the genre – the 1970s.  Considering low budget horrors like TCM and Halloween (which came out the same year as The Toolbox Murders) have always received praise, it’s not hard to see some quality comparison between this one and those.  Nostalgic resurgence certainly was able to bring all these video store and late night cable darlings back to be revisited.  Change in public sensibilities, understanding of genre, etc. all played a role in getting an actual Blu-Ray release for a movie like The Toolbox Murders.  Not to mention, some praise from Stephen King!

Though King may be a great writer, he’s not a great critic of horror.

Oh, as an aside, I found a couple interesting pieces of trivia around this movie when I was prepping to watch this.  First, in the movie Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, it is implied that the character of Eugene was actually responsible for the Toolbox Murders in the world of that film.  Second, a sort of remake was made in 2004 and received higher marks from critics.  The director?  None other than Tobe Hooper.  Ain’t that somethin’?

The movie begins with credits playing over a man driving down the street listening to an evangelical preacher on the radio about repenting and saving your soul and shit or you’ll go to hell.  It is your typical fire and brimstone shit that often found its way into horror movies of the late 70s and through the 80s.  The credits come to an abrupt end with a car crash and a woman falling out of the passenger seat.  She’s taken to the morgue.  But then it goes back to the guy in the car listening to the preacher and driving…  It’s a little surreal, but okay.  I’m gonna give this movie a chance.

So the man gets what we assume is someplace he is familiar with because he is greeted by a drunk woman who is giving him some grief over something.  As she bitches at him, he calmly gets into his toolbox and produces a drill and begins drilling her arm.  She runs away until, no duh, dude drills through a door of the room she’s hiding in and gets in.  He knocks her out and drills her to death.  He puts on his trademark ski mask, crooked I might add, and leaves.

In another apartment, a girl comes home from the store and prepares a shower for herself.  This girl has no need for a bra, and that’s marvelous.  Even better, we do get to see her no bra-ness without a shirt on too.  Sadly, though, Mr. Toolbox Murder Man is there and knocks her out.  He takes her to a stairwell and kills her with the claw end of a hammer.  Debra, as this girl is named, comes over and discovers her body and our killer.  She knees him in the balls and nearly escapes, but he’s able to recover from the nutting to throw her to the ground and pull out an awl from his toolbox and stabs her.

Goddamn, movie!  You’re less than 15 minutes old and you’ve already offed three bitches!  Even more, we’ve already seen a pair of boobs and, as we see the murderer looking out of Debra’s window at the other young single ladies in the apartment complex doing various things in their apartments, we see chicks dancing in their living rooms in their underwear, other hot babes doing hot babe things, and the like.    We also have already heard a kooky crazy fundamentalist radio sermon, seen a babe die in a car accident (I guess that means FOUR bitches are dead now), and heard the local weather forecast on a different radio station.  This is a very dense movie in its first one-sixth of screen time!

But I don’t see anything here regarding misogynist tendencies.

So after killing three girls in quick succession, the murderer starts peeping for another victim.  He flat out opens the front door to see one couple talking about some wine, so he lets them pass.  An older black couple discovers the bodies and calls the police.  The first victim was a divorced girl.  The second, Debbie, was somewhat recently moved in and quiet.  The third was just a friend of Debbie’s who showed up at the wrong time.  A bunch of porno mags are spread out across Debbie’s coffee table with blood splattered on them.  That’s odd, and I’m fairly certain it is never brought up again.

But whatever, it’s time for Cameron Mitchell, who plays Vance Kingsley, comes in to speak to the fuzz.  He’s the owner of the apartment complex.  He’s bothered by what’s transpired as he says the place was specifically set up as a secured complex.  He even personally reviews each applicant to know where they work, and have worked, and if there are any red flags in their history.  The police ask him to produce a list of everyone who lives in the building currently so the police will have some info on the identity of the other tenants.

Next we meet sweet Laurie, played by Pamelyn Ferdin.  Interesting credits to Pam Ferdin include an episode of The Monkees, Star Trek (in the particularly memorable episode “And the Children Shall Lead”) as well as the voice of Lucy Van Pelt in various Charlie Brown specials and movies in the early 70s.  Most of her credits are on TV shows which, considering this film was mostly made by TV people, makes sense.  She lives at home with her mother and it seems her mother is not very well.  She oversleeps, seems a little out of it so much so that Laurie makes her own breakfast.  She even gets heat from her brother for not waking him up.  Considering he asks Laurie what she’s making for dinner, I have to assume she pretty much runs the place for her mom.

However, I’m a whole lot less interested in Laurie’s home life now that we’ve gotten to maybe the one scene that most everyone will remember most from this movie – the bathtub scene.

To start, let’s go back to March when I covered Dixie Ray Hollywood Star.  Oddly enough, that also had a role in it for Cameron Mitchell.  Well, in that movie, Dixie Ray’s daughter/step-daughter, whatever she is, was played by Kelly Nichols.  Nichols was a porn star and, yeah, she had a hardcore scene in Dixie Ray as you’d expect from an actual porn actress.  I made mention in that article that we’d see her again, and here we are.  This was her first movie, and she’s credited as Marianne Walter.  This was before her porn days while she was still mostly doing exploitation flicks.  But she likes to take her clothes off so it’s only fair she get the most memorable scene of this movie.

We saw her previously in the movie when she was dancing around in her underwear in front of her living room window when Murder Man was scoping the complex for another victim.  But now, we’re inside her apartment and watch as she is getting ready to take a bath.

She admires herself and then drops her robe and gets into the bath where a love song plays as she takes spectacular joy in lathering up.

But then…  What’s this?

Honey, I don’t think that is helping you get…

Wow.

So we watch this girl rub one out in the bath to goddamn completion if it wasn’t for Toolbox Murder Man busting into her place.  Like, I mean it.  At one point, she’s gone two handed down there into that business.  We see her pant and writhe and it’s damn near pornographic… AND I love it.

Sadly all good things must come to an end.  Murder Man comes in with a nail gun.  Initially she seems to escape him, but she trips on his toolbox.  This causes him to miss with a nail from the nail gun, and while he reloads, she’s able to toss a vase at him.  He misses again, but she’s cornered in her bedroom.  She tries to plead for him to put down the nail gun and be cool and shit.  Seemingly, he’s into the idea of possibly making the sex with her, but when she falls off the bed, it reminds him of the girl who fell out of the car after the car accident and he flips out.  He shoots her once through the stomach and then puts a nail in her forehead.

All this is done to a song called “Pretty Lady” by the movie’s music composer George Deaton.  I wanted to try to find that song to link here so you can the preposterous nature of watching this really graphic scene that starts with a pretty lady masturbating in the tub only to end up with a nail in the fucking forehead, but, alas, I didn’t find a video of it.  I did see where I could buy a 45 of it on Discogs, but no video.  Goddammit.

Still, though, this movie seems totally progressive and stuff.

Alright, back tot he real world of this movie now that the super hot redhead who was getting herself off is now dead.  The Toolbox Murder Man moves onto Laurie’s house and he seems to have kidnapped her.  Why?  I can’t really say at this stage, but she can’t be dead because she’s kind of the main actress in this movie.  Her brother comes home just before their mom and they aren’t sure where she is, but they do hear the screams of a lady who discovered Hotstuff McRedhead’s body.

Joey, Laurie’s brother, is taken in as a possible person of interest by the police.  He is standing by how he’s looking for his sister and he’s innocent, but the detective, Jamison, can’t help but find some curious things in his story.  First, he’s a young guy who might very well be somehow affected by all the hot babe flesh in the complex.  Considering he’s often out alone at night, no one can really help corroborate his alibis.  On top of that, the night before, when the first three murders happened, he said he was out, but his mom believed him to be home.  So none of this is looking good for Joey.

After leaving the police station, Joey enters one of the apartments where a murder occurred where he finds one of his friends, Kent.  Kent is the nephew of Vance and has been sent to this apartment to clean it up.  Kent seems oddly intrigued by the scene of the crime and the amount of blood everywhere.  Kent also brings up his cousin, Kathy, who is the girl who we saw die in the car accident.  Vance was her father, and even Kent is still bothered by her death.

Joey and Kent go over to the redhead’s place to try to sort out what they can to see if there’s anyway to solve Laurie’s disappearance.  Kent is particularly weirded out when Joey finds the babe’s vibrator.  That’s an odd reaction, I’d think.  Could he be the killer?

No, of course he’s not.  Vance is.  You know how I know?  Because Vance is played by Cameron Mitchell and he’s not often not the bad guy in an exploitation flick.  Besides, the Toolbox Murder Man is built like Cameron Mitchell.  He has Cameron Mitchell’s eyes.  He hums like we’ve seen the killer do as he approaches his victims.  You get the picture.  Plus, now that we’ve hit the halfway point, Cameron Mitchell is acting like a real suspect dude.

Not to mention, he has Laurie tied to a bed and dressed like a perfect little daughter with a white frilly dress and the sort.

Alright…  So Vance is a total nutcase.  He says that Kathy would want Laurie to have all her stuff.  He then immediately follows that up by telling Laurie that Kathy was prettier.  His philosophy is that God apparently would like to take “the best ones” when they are young.  You know, before the evil, horrible, ugly world corrupts them.  He then goes on about each of the victims and why he had to kill them.  The first was a drunk, the second probably was a slut or something, and the third did really nasty shit to herself – like rubbing one out in the tub.  He believes he’s cut all the bad stuff out of those victims leaving only the good.  What’s more, he’s been so broken and depressed over Kathy’s death that what he’s gotten out of the murders is how everyone, police included, has been nice to him again.

Laurie starts to see through the crazy and tries to manipulate Vance by calling him “Daddy” and pretending to be Kathy to answer questions or have discussions with Vance to give him responses he wants.  However, he’s not so out of it that he frees Laurie.  In fact, he ties her wrists together even after she begs him to untie her because the binds hurt her.

This second act has kind of hit a slog.  Jamison is trying to find Laurie but has no luck.  He stops off at the bar that her mom works at to talk to her, but the mom is kind of portrayed as a bit of a dick herself.  She doesn’t want to answer questions when she gets off from work because after work she goes straight home to her kids.  However, she was gone when Laurie was kidnapped.  It’s almost like the movie is punishing the mom for not being married and having to work to feed her two teenage kids…  Hmmm…  Nah, this movie is still a progressive gem of the exploitation era.

Meanwhile, Kent and Joey are still on the hunt for Laurie and get real close.  Laurie sees Kent rapping on the window above the bed, but can’t really do anything because Vance’s crazy ass comes in and wants to sing with her.  The song he sings is just repeating the line “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child” over and over.

Back at the first murder scene, Joey and Kent are cleaning up the place and Jamison is there with binoculars and trying to find a thread that connects the murders.  He figures with only one forced entry, that of the redhead’s place, the others he must have had to con his way in somehow.  Joey figures maybe he didn’t have to con his way in.  He’s not sure how, but what if that was the case?  Jamison is dubious of that claim.

You know what isn’t sitting well with me?  Laurie, a 15 year old girl, is missing.  She was taken while doing homework, so she’s still in school and that’s not nothing that stands to be noticed.  However, Joey seems perfectly happy to slowly figure out the mystery, and his mom is just still working at the local dive bar and sleeps into the day like nothing is wrong.  This isn’t a case in which she has up and left for spring break and left a note saying as much.  No, she’s flat out been kidnapped.  Even the goddamn detective is like “maybe she just got spooked by the murders and took off” saying, in so many words, that she’s just some dumb scared girl and girls run away all the time so get the fuck out of here, kid.

Knowing how each of the women was killed, and following a hunch he started himself with the idea that maybe the killer didn’t have to con his way into the victims’ apartments, Joey goes to Vance’s place, and in his shed finds the toolbox with all the weapons inside.  He’s caught by Kent, but Joey shows him that he knows Vance is the killer.  Kent says that would cause all sorts of trouble for Vance and his family if Joey keeps this shit up.

Kent tosses some gasoline onto Joey and teases him by tossing lit matches at him.  After several moments of playing with fire, Kent finally throws multiple matches onto Joey and burns him to death.  The fucked up thing is that Laurie can hear it in the bedroom.  Vance just tells her it is children playing.  That’s actually one of the more unsettling things in the movie.  This is one of those movies in which the victims are not really deserving of their fate.  That’s always a bummer and kind of sad.  That’s not to mean it is bad, but it’s just unfortunate.

Anyway, Kent comes into the bedroom and seems shocked that his uncle is a nutso.  However, things are much more complicated than it seems.  It’s not just that Kent murdered his friend and Laurie’s brother, but Kent has his own beef with Kathy’s death.  You see, Kent and Laurie were kissing cousins.  He reveals that every opportunity they had to be alone, they would steal away and make love.  In fact, it’s implied that it was Kent who was driving the car that got into the accident that killed Kathy in the first place.

We get some real solid Cameron Mitchell dialogue in the ensuing chase around the house when he flips out at Kent for being a fornicator.  Kent defends himself with a knife and stabs Vance a couple times, killing him.  Kent is starting to get up into his uncles numbers with how productive he’s been today with the murdering and what have you.

Kent frees Laurie, but I think he will likely have to explain why the place smells of roasted Joey.  Also, he’s a total nut too.  He frees Laurie, but kind of treats her like Kathy.  But he’s cognizant that she’s Laurie.  Basically, he’s into young girls.  Like, young girls.   Kent then rapes Laurie.  After, he’s talking about their life as if they are married.  He also flagrantly reveals he killed Joey.  This causes Laurie to break and we get a really bitchin’ shot of her looking at the pair of scissors Kent used to cut her free, then it cutting to her walking dazed, and alone, in a parking lot with her white dress stained with Kent’s blood.

We then get to that part that I brought up earlier in how this was supposedly part of a real life story…

The credits roll over Laurie walking through that parking lot toward what looks like a mall.  It’s a really cool shot and a hell of a way to end your exploitation movie.

Let’s talk about that exploitation movie, shall we?  The first act is where all the murder takes place.  Those are the titular Toolbox Murders.  The second act is where the investigation goes on without that much excitement.  However, I will say I do like the Kent and Joey characters.  But I REALLY like the Cameron Mitchell character of Vance.  He’s pretty creepy because he just isn’t there.  He’s enough together the first time you see him when he is talking to the cops about the first murder, but he is slowly degenerating into a man who can barely speak coherent, non-baby talk sentences.  He is very good in this movie.

And while it is revealed in the second act who the killer is, the third act goes pretty nutty pretty quickly.  You  have a guy, Kent, who should be a good guy burn our hero, Joey, alive, then stab his own uncle Vance, then rapes Laurie – only for her to take revenge on the entire situation by stabbing him to death herself.  It escalates quickly in act three because the second kind of slogged along.  Overall, this movie is made fairly well despite it being mostly TV people.  It’s acted EXTREMELY well.  I can see why this did ultimately regain some notoriety when exploitation as a genre went through a critical re-evaluation.

There’s also a reason why I own this movie on Blu-Ray too.  Though, I do have a funny story about that.  Like a lot of people, I keep an Amazon Wishlist.  It’s easy for birthday and Christmas.  It’s easy for me to remind myself I saw something I wanted that I can go back to later and get it.  So,  on Christmas morning, I’m at my mom’s after breakfast and The Toolbox Murders was one of the quartet she got me off my wishlist.  I wonder if she’s aware of what my favorite scene is.  Hmm…

Anyway, that does it for this week’s B-Movie Enema entry.  Next week, I’m going to dig into another one of those Blu-Rays in my Christmas gift from Mom.  It’s also a sequel to a movie I covered back in my Nights of Demons Month back in October.  Come back next week for my take on Demons 2!

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