Toolbox Murders, The
Has it really been eight years since Blue Underground first released their inaugural DVD, The Toolbox Murders? I still remember it vividly, it being 2002 and me coming back a week early for my sophomore year of college, only to find an envelope with Shock Waves, The Prowler and The Toolbox Murders addressed from this upstart called Blue Underground. It was a still summer night, and I watched all three films back to back, all for the first time. It really was one the most memorable screenings Iíve ever had. Reminding me that Iím now eight years older, and that Shock Waves and The Prowler still sadly arenít on Blu-ray, Blue Underground sends me a new package, this time much thinner than before. Itís The Toolbox Murders on Blu-ray, and no, not the Tobe Hooper one. See, I didnít have to say that eight years ago, did I?
Armed with a metal toolbox and a black ski mask, a killer lurks the city streets. He kills without repent and in a most gruesome manner. Using everything from hammers to nail guns he robs the lives of many women. An adult films star, an alcoholic and an exotic dancer (in mid-masturbation, no less!) are his initial victims, all sharing the trait of doing "unnatural things" to their bodies. Dressed in black he attacks a single apartment complex and many of the women in it, but the detectives cannot seem to pinpoint the perpetrator.
The stalker, out yet once again, this time kidnaps an innocent girl, Laurie Ballard (Pamelyn Ferdin). He spares her life, which baffles the police, but as the viewer later discovers, the prowler is mourning the death of his lost daughter, and is using Laurie as a replacement to mask his pain. His daughter was killed in a brutal car accident, and believing that God only takes the purest of souls, he keeps the innocent and naÔve Laurie tied to her bed so she will never be harmed.
Meanwhile, Laurie's brother, Joey (Nicolas Beauvy), and his friend, Kent (Wesley Eure), decide to play a little detective work themselves and see if they can find this brutal killer and stop him before he does harm to Laurie. As Joey becomes engulfed further and further in the case, he discovers that there is more to this case than what seems to be, and he realizes that his life too, may be on the line. What ensues in the climactic minutes are some deathly revelations, but just who will surviveÖThe Toolbox Murders?
There are few films that define the Grindhouse better than Dennis Donnelly's The Toolbox Murders. The first thirty minutes give the audience exactly what they paid for, with four brutal murders by every tool in the book. The Grindhouse was always shameless, but what always gets me about this movie and the murders in particular, is just how nonchalantly they occur. There is no attempt to develop suspense - the kills are all well lit and devoid of any "boo!" factor. What makes it even more off putting is all this light, hoaky country music that seems to underpin every murder. A far cry from the orchestral stings of Psycho of the big jolts of a Castle picture, the total disregard for suspense, and by extension, life, has always made the first half so bizarrely unsettling.
Proving that this is a film full of curve balls, the movie then shifts momentarily into police procedural before once again breaking left. Before we even hit half way it drops its cards and reveals the killer. Anything goes at the Grindhouse! What then transpires is a melodramatic almost made for TV weepy about a father with some tragic daughter issues. Cameron Mitchell is by some turns affecting as the distraught father, but by most hammy, in particular on the scene where he pretty much fellates a lollipop during line readings as if it had the significance of the dagger in Macbeth. Refusing to just let violence be violence, we get an effecting humanizing of the main character that twistedly tries to vindicate all his heinous actions.
Considering the film reveals its hand so early, you'd think it would run out of steam come the final act, but always one for surprise, the film effectively throws in another twist that provides for another few jolts of excitement and buckets of blood. After sympathizing for a half with Mitchell's character, the film then reminds us that Laurie certainly been put through the ringer, too. Proving it will take tragedy wherever it can get it, the film ends with a pretty harrowing tracking shot that is abruptly disrupted by one of the most laughable faux-"true story" title cards ever committed to cinema. You'd almost expect a second card telling us what Laurie ate for breakfast the next day.
The Toolbox Murders is an uneven film, but always an interesting one. It's told in a manner that never simply adheres to convention, and the way it almost factually presents death and gets into the head of the killer must have certainly inspired Bill Lustig, who made the similar (but much darker) Maniac before later buying the rights to the film we have here today. There are some nice bits of subtext stuffed behind the exploitative story, and the kinetic editing is often effective. Even some of the quaint music cues, like "when the night is over we will be as one instead of two" during the bathtub murder, effectively hint at the killer's daughter displacement. Before the slasher film put death on a rollercoaster track, for a brief time in seventies cinema death could be real and raw, and at its best, that's what The Toolbox Murders is all about.
The Toolbox Murders has always been a rarity in that it was a completely American film exhibited and displayed in the European 1.66:1 aspect ratio. That ratio is preserved here in full 1080p resolution on a single-layer BD. I donít know what Blue Underground has in their transfer toolbox, but whatever they have, itís working. This is an amazing transfer, incredibly sharp but still with a light trace of natural grain, vivid and accurate colors and hardly a single spec on the frame. Who knew seventies cult cinema could look so damn good? A lot of background elements previous blurred can finally be made out, like the logos on Pepsi cans, or, sorry to say, the mustache on the big, black female tenant at the 17-minute mark.
The previous disc, again, is now eight years old, so this transfer is certainly newly minted, and in comparison the sharpness and detail are miles ahead on the Blu-ray. The Blu-ray seems a little cleaner, too, although both still have a few specs and the occasional frame or two of orange vingetting on the left corner of the frame. Check out the bathroom masturbation scene (as if you needed another excuse to watch it again!) for proof. With the added sharpness of this Blu-ray the desired ďwindowĒ effect is frequently achieved, the film often looking three dimensional in depth. The color timing on the Blu-ray is also better, with skin tones more life-like and even details like bedsheets and such a more colorful and fitting hue. Blue Underground has mostly done some fantastic Blu-ray upgrades, and this is another bit on the olí tool belt. Great stuff.
Weíve all grown accustomed to Blue Underground delivering remixed 7.1 tracks on all their product, but when they humbly began, they were a mono only outfit. Thus, The Toolbox Murders on paper gets a grand update from the English mono of the previous DVD to DTS-HD 7.1 on this Blu-ray. In practice, though, little has been done to improve the original mono track. I could not find a single instance where the rear surrounds were put to use, and while the center channel is now put to use along with the two front speakers, there is zero channel separation. Dialogue still sounds flat, although the twangy music (which seems to come on every time thereís a murder) does sound a lot fuller. I was hoping for a lot more, especially some resonance when the killer starts firing that nail gun at Marianne Walter, but overall itís still a fairly flat experience despite the better transport stream.
Like with most Blu Underground upgrades, this one retains all the special features of the original DVD save for the Poster & Still Gallery and a Cameron Michtell biography. Shame those two had to go, and I donít really know why, but there is a nice spattering of extras here to stop you from fussing over the small stuff.
The biggest extra is a commentary with Producer Tony DiDio, Director of Photography Gary Graver and Star Pamelyn Ferdin. DiDio is the most vocal of the track, with Ferdin acting somewhat like a moderator; Gary Graver chimes in about the photography every once and awhile, but he is otherwise fairly quiet. All of them are quick to praise Cameron Mitchell, and DiDio even admits that Mitchell was a heavy drinker. They all look fondly upon the film, and they give several interesting anecdotes about how people have reacted to the film, including mentioning the fact that this is Stephen King's favorite film. There are some gaps of silence in the track, but DiDio's fondness for the film makes this a worthwhile and interesting track.
Next up is an enjoyable eight minute featurette, "I Got Nailed in The Toolbox Murders", which consists of an interview and clips with Marianne Walter (known by adult film fans as Kelly Nichols). She expresses her joy about being cast in the film, and she laughs about being afraid that her thighs would be too fat on screen. A humorously edited and worthwhile eight minutes.
Rounding off the set is a TV spot, two radio spots and the theatrical trailer. All these are interesting to watch today to see how the film cashed in on the craze for horror film based on realistic subject matter. The Blu-ray also has a nice animated menu (especially compared to all those bad stills most companies seem to use these days), complete with a drill sound every time you highlight a new item.
For the first 30-minutes, The Toolbox Murders offers a relentless killing spree with weapons and menace that live up to the title. Then for the second half it morphs into a story of pathos, with the murderer coming to terms with loss and death. Itís not entirely high art, but itís presented with a frank, sometimes brutal, simplicity that made the Grindhouse such an interesting place. Blue Underground has tooled up a very impressive visual upgrade, and the audio benefits too, although not quite what the 7.1 spec would have promised. The extras are virtually the same minus a gallery and a bio, so for old fart fans of the film who bought this, gulp, eight years ago (myself one of them!), itís time to get with the times. A worthy upgrade.
*Because of the quality of the HD format, the clarity, resolution and color depth are inherently a major leap over DVD. Since any Blu-ray will naturally have better characteristics than DVDs, the rating is therefore only in comparison with other Blu-ray titles, rather than home video in general. So while a Blu-ray film may only get a C, it will likely be much better than a DVD with an A.
Gary Graver died in 2006 according to imdb. They obviously kept the commentary for a while
Nice review rhett! I've had this one on pre-order for months and can't wait to get it in my hands. I still don't understand why Blue Underground keeps omitting the previous still galleries from their Blu-rays. And what's odd is they ported them over on the Living Dead at Manchester Morgue Blu-ray. What do they do, flip a coin now?
Great review rhett!! I'm as excited as I was 8 years ago...has it really been that long? Wow!!
These "Blu Underground" releases so far all have me planning on upgrading my DVDs. I will indeed be grabbing this, and still need to upgrade The New York Ripper and The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue. I guess I'll just get 'em all in the same order.
I have had this on preorder since November, can't wait to get it, I haven't seen this movie in a long time, so I'm hoping it's as good as I remembver it being.
Got the Blu-ray yesterday, and I have to say this is a big upgrade from the old DVD. The increase in detail now visible makes the film a whole new experience. Slick menu and sound effects on the Blu-ray too.
I still don't understand why B.U. left off the old Stills Gallery...but that's just about my only complaint here.
Well your review has persuaded me to buy this, although I already have what I consider to be a very good DVD. I just love the movie... it has everything including nostagia! The remake was surprisingly good too except for the last 20 minutes, when the serial murderer became imbued with ridiculously superhuman abilities. It also featured some of the nastiest torture/death scenes I've ever watched!
A certain thread on the original films IMDB page never fails to make me laugh. It's from a moralist who calls herself Princess Jessie and doesn't even refer to the correct version!!
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