Review by Dave Kaye
*** ½ Out of 5
Tagline- Bit by Bit He Carved a Nightmare
Release Date- March, 1978
Running Time- 93-Minutes
Screenplay- Neva Friedenn, Robert Easter, Ann Kindberg
Director- Dennis Donnelly
Starring- Cameron Mitchell, Pamelyn Ferdin, Wesley Eure, Nicolas Beauvy, Tim Donnelly and Aneta Corsaut
Released in 1978 The Toolbox Murders has built up a cult following over the years and has also been criticized for its violence and for being sleazy, but personally while the movie is violent it’s actually not anywhere near its reputation even for the time it was released and HG Lewis starting doing splatter flicks as early as 1963 and as far as the sleaze factor it stems really from one scene in, which Dee Ann (Marianne Walker AKA Kelly Nichols) pleasures herself in a bathtub before meeting a grisly end, which was the best death scene of the movie, but point is the reputation of the movie isn’t quite up to what it has been made out to be.
The Toolbox Murders is a very frustrating movie to watch since it has all the elements of a great horror movie, but it just never reaches that level or comes close to it even if enjoyable. The movie gets off to a really quick start with about 4 death scenes in the first 25-minutes, but after that not a whole lot happens and the movie also lacks in real direction and it’s not until the final act when things begin to pick up again. While Toolbox Murders is a totally different movie from When a Stranger Calls the basic structure of the movie is sort of like that with the middle sections lacking any action, but at least When a Stranger Calls had a direction and it’s not nearly as boring as people sometimes make it out to be and while Toolbox Murders isn’t totally boring there are moments where I sort of started to zone out of the movie.
The screenplay by Neva Friedenn, Robert Easter, and Ann Kindberg was rather weak and never really had a clear direction; there isn’t any character development and the victims are introduced and killed off right away without any hint of depth; Laurie (Ferdin) was the only interesting character and likeable character, but she only has a couple of scenes before her abduction and therefore it does make it tough to get attached to the character or fully sympathize with her.
After a quick start the movie slows down and the script isn’t strong enough to keep things interesting. The identity of the killer should be fairly obvious as soon as he first appears on screen, but halfway through the movie the killer is revealed and the motivation was a bit weak more because we never know what he was like before he had his breakdown. I think the biggest problem with the script is plots never really go anywhere. The police investigation feels more like a filler to pad the running time and Laurie’s brother Joey (Beauvy) starts his own investigation, but it never really goes anywhere and also feels like filler scenes; all of this would be ok if there were more action, but since after the opening act there aren’t any more death scenes until the final act these scenes after a while start to lag the movie down. Though there is a pretty decent twist and that sort of saves the script a little bit.
Toolbox Murders marked the feature film debut by Dennis Donnelly who prior to this directed TV episodes and this also happens to be his only feature film to date as after this it was back to TV productions. Despite getting off to a quick start Donnelly never sets a tone for the movie and we go from one death scene to another with no real set ups and zero character development; even with the limitations Donnelly could have given the characters a little bit of depth and therefore the suspense and tension are nonexistent. Despite the lack of suspense the death scenes do have a mean spirited feel behind them and are rather strong even if again there isn’t much of a set up. The death scenes have gotten quite a reputation, but the gore is fairly tame when compared to other flicks of the time.
After the opening act as I stated things really slow down and Donnelly isn’t able to inject much life into the movie and while some of this might be due to the script a lot of it however falls on Donnelly. I never felt as if Donnelly set a tone for the movie and I’ve seen several horror flicks that have a weak script or an ok script, but the director was able to create an eerie tone with suspense and tension that make up for any flaws with the script, but Donnelly isn’t really able to do that. Even the opening act had some sluggish pacing despite the amount of deaths due to the poor set ups, but regardless the opening act is the most fun and exciting, but Donnelly is unable to carry any of that over. All in all Dennis Donnelly does make an enjoyable if not overly flawed film and despite the middle sections I quite enjoyed the movie maybe more due to the potential than content.
Like many slasher flicks The Toolbox Murders came under fire for its graphic violence towards women and for being overly sleazy, but I don’t think the reputation is warranted since as I stated I found this rather tame when compared with many other movies released within the same time. Were the attacks justified or just another case of people with nothing better to do other than complain? Overall The Toolbox Murders was an alright film; it has a strong first act, but after that never really goes anywhere until the end and even the final act isn’t all that exciting, but fans of exploitation cinema should check this out since despite the flaws it does have its moments.
While my review may not sound overly positive I did enjoy the movie for what it was and it was later remade by Tobe Hooper and despite a few connections it’s a totally unrelated film with a supernatural killer. My advice skip the lousy remake and get the original.