The crumbling architecture and faded twenties decor of The Lusman Arms Apartment block are getting a sorely needed lick of paint and some urgent renovations as Newlyweds, Nell (Angelia Bettis) and Steven (Brent Roam) Barrows move in to their new Los Angeles home. The damp walls are thin and the noisy neighbours cranky -- but that will soon be the least of the new tenants' worries: the Lusman was built to mysterious "occult" specifications which appear to drive the murderous frenzy of a balaclava-clad killer with a penchant for a particularly violent form of DIY! Claw-hammer, power drill and nail gun in-turn, are soon being used to liberally redecorate the block's tawdry apartment dwellings with the bloody innards of their helpless occupants!
When Nell's new friend, Julia (Juliet Landau) disappears, she becomes increasingly paranoid and disturbed by her dilapidated surroundings; and while her husband is away on long shifts at the hospital, the troubled girl sets out to explore the dark secrets of The Lusman -- in the process, stumbling on a dusty plan of the Apartments. Her investigations soon reveal a secret townhouse concealed within the winding complex of rooms; a system of arcane occult symbols leads her to a rooftop entrance (guarded by a lowly rocking-chair, swaying in the breeze) and into a bizarre, living nightmare!
This modern re-imagining of a notorious seventies exploitation classic represents an extremely canny bit of marketing nous on the part of producers Terence S. Potter and Jacqueline Quella: with the participation of the producer of the original film, Tony Didio, they managed to come up with a project that would push enough buttons with horror fans to guarantee a reasonable level of commercial success, regardless of the actual content of the film! The aura of disreputable nastiness that surrounds the title: "The Toolbox Murders" is practically all that remains of the original sleaze classic though; writers Jace Anderson & Adam Gierasch have fashioned a tale that has more acceptability in the mainstream horror market than its dubious namesake, while still making use of the concept of a masked killer, utilising the contents of his toolbox to off the tenants of a down-at-heel apartment block. Ironically, the gore content is much higher than in the 1978 film -- which relied mainly on a potent mixture of twisted sex and violent misogyny to generate its extreme notoriety -- and there is a wider variety of lethal-looking tools used to dispatch a much higher number of female (and male) victims as well!
The producers also scored a few extra bonus points by enlisting the services of Tobe Hopper to direct the feature. Hopper's career has been patchy since directing one of the all time classics of horror, "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" in 1973, but he proves he still has the magic touch here -- pulling out all the stops with some wonderfully kinetic sequences of deranged violence (especially in the film's climactic last half-hour) and, with the help of director of photography Steve Yedlin, creating a rich atmosphere that recalls the dark, Grimm's fairy tale Gothic vibe of his 70s masterpiece. The killer's dank lair, full of moldering corpses and rusting tools of torture, will remind viewers of some of the horrific interiors of the Sawyer family's innocuous-looking house, while the balaclava-clad killer (here known as Coffin Baby) turns out to possess a visage and persona that is very obviously based on Leatherface's disturbed quirkiness!
The producers have obviously set out to recreate the style and aesthetic of classic seventies horror flick, and this can be clearly seen in the set design and art direction as well as the photography of the film; but even the DVD transfer seems to be slightly more grainy than you would normally expect from a recently made film -- almost as if has been deliberately contrived to look like an old classic that has been restored for the digital medium! Anderson and Gierasch have written-in a few scenes that pointedly reference their favourite seventies horror classics -- thus, the introduction of a supernatural element into the plot. The most notable of these references though is probably Sheri Moon's rain-soaked night-time entrance into the forbidding Lusman Arms, which is very reminiscent of the opening scenes of "Suspiria". Despite a few lulls in the film's middle section (itself, a fairly common occurrence in seventies slasher flicks) Hopper manages to find some inventive ways to keep the viewer on edge and comes up with some particularly clever "stings" as well as some good in-jokes (the mirror gag -- also used in "Haute Tension") to engage the slasher fan.
Despite all these contrived efforts on the part of the film's producers, the film mainly succeeds because of two other factors: the maze-like creepiness of the Ambassador Hotel -- which was used as the main location -- and lead actress Angela Bettis, who is rapidly carving a niche for herself in the horror genre with a string of well received genre entries. The Ambassador Hotel is an amazing location with a very colourful history that is well-emphasised by Yedlin's atmospheric photography. Soon to be demolished, the place is full of bizarre little nooks & crannies, peeling walls and dark recesses that aid the film's atmospheric air considerably, and its reputation for being haunted does not come as a great surprise. Bettis, meanwhile, possesses an agreeable Nancy Drew-ish, slacker chick persona which is very endearing; she brings just the right mix of vulnerability and resourcefulness to the role of Nell Barrows, and comes over like a modern Marilyn Chambers (the star of Hopper's "Texas Chain Saw Massacre") conveying fear and a desperate will to live in equal measure, especially in the final half-hour when she is being hunted by the killer.
The two-disc DVD release from Anchor Bay UK does expose something of a flaw in the script: it is not always entirely clear what is really going on in the film and it is quite perplexing to note that two quite different explanations are given in the two commentary tracks that accompany the film! For instance, writers Jace Anderson and Adam Gierasch give a totally different explanation of the Chas Rooker character from the one given in the producer's commentary! Both are, otherwise, quite interesting though and it appears there may be a sequel on the cards with Hopper directing again! Disc one also includes biographies, film notes and a theatrical trailer -- but the deleted scenes of extra gore mentioned repeatedly in the commentary tracks are nowhere to be seen! The actual film is presented in a nice anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer which includes removable English subtitles for the hard of hearing.
Disc two features a photo gallery and a short, but quite entertaining, EPK featurette which includes lots of behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with cast and crew. The main extra though is the excellent documentary "The American Nightmare" which looks at the work of North America's (and Canada's) modern masters of the horror genre as well as academics who place the films in their historical context. With contributions from George A. Romero, Wes Craven, Tobe Hopper and David Cronenberg this has to be one of the most intelligent, disturbing and informative documentaries ever made on the modern, independent horror film and its creators, and is well worth the price of the set by itself!
"Toolbox Murders" can hardly be place in the same exalted company as the films featured in this documentary but it is certainly inspired by them and provides Tobe Hopper with his first really worthwhile project in many years. For that, it is definitely to be commended.