Tobe Hooper revisits a subpar slasher movie with Toolbox Murders, a loose remake of Dennis Donnelly’s 1978 video nasty. This 2004 outing is essentially an attempt at constructing the style and tone of a 1970s slasher picture and it’s most successful, even if it does feature a horde of cardboard cut-outs for characters.
Toolbox Murders features a screenplay by Jace Anderson and Adam Gierasch, the team responsible for Hooper’s 2000 farce Crocodile. This time out, the husband and wife writing team help the director return to the B-movie tropes that served him so well with features like Eaten Alive and The Funhouse. There’s a more deliberate, more centred feel.
Nell (Angela Bettis) and Steven (Brent Roam) are new tenants in the Lusman Arms, a former hotel open to residents. Bryon (Greg Travis) is the building manager and he boasts that there’s a doorman (Marco Rodriguez), a real rarity for the price range. Steven spends a lot of time at work, leaving Nell to explore the place by herself.
But she’s less than ecstatic, especially considering the raft of strange noises and weird occurrences in the Lusman Arms. She finds human teeth in the wall and the bodies start to pile up. There’s a killer on the loose. The sexy jogger (Juliet Landau) is among the victims, while old man Chas (Rance Howard) knows an awful lot about the building’s history.
Toolbox Murders opens with text that refers to how people move to Hollywood to pursue their dreams, with some of them apparently just vanishing. While one might imagine that this sets the stage for the rest of the picture, it doesn’t seem to have much to do with anything. Nell and Steven do live around a fleet of performers, but there’s nothing overly “Hollywood” about how things play out.
In fact, the Lusman Arms could be anywhere in the world. It’s a standard shabby apartment complex, one that supposedly brims with an odd history and one that features an unusual handyman (Gierasch). There are also bizarre symbols lying around, which apparently have something to do with the history of the killer.
The murders are appropriately graphic, with tools of various types used as weapons because that’s what the title demands. Someone is dispatched with a power drill, while a claw hammer does its foul business. A favourite kill involves the use of lye, while a circular saw is a close second thanks to its cruelty.
The killer is one of those defaced sorts with a mask and so forth. There’s nothing overly interesting about him, but he is referred to as “Coffin Baby” in the credits and Chas attempts to tell Nell a half-assed backstory to provide a little context. It doesn’t matter.
Cinematographer Steve Yedlin, who shot Lucky McKee’s May in 2002, does well to capture the spine-chilling, murky passages of the Lusman Arms. The former hotel really is an eerie set, with a few secrets jammed between the walls. Nell wonders why all the floors lack an apartment ending in the number four, for example, and there may or may not be a hidden corridor.
Nell is a pretty basic heroine. There’s not much to her. The film does hint at her isolation, but her anxiety has limited impact. A deeper character study could’ve played on her emerging suspicion, but Hooper only teases at the fringes by having her overzealously call the cops on a loud neighbour.
Toolbox Murders is just okay. The characters are as thin as the walls at the Lusman Arms and the plot is basic, but there’s something to Hooper’s homage to the slasher genre that sticks. There’s a good slice of atmosphere and Yedlin’s lensing is suitably muddy and miserable. It may lack the humour and texture of the filmmaker’s better demons, but it’s a cut well above his worst endeavours.