Toolbox Murders (1978)

Bit by Bit…by Bit He Carved a Nightmare!

Poster image to 1978's The Toolbox Murders

An apartment complex is being terrorized by a killer whose murder weapons can be found in any handyman’s toolbox. Amidst all the bloodshed, one teenage girl named Laurie Ballard (Pamelyn Ferdin) goes missing. Her brother Joe (Nicolas Beauvy) intends to find out where she has been taken, and what has happened to her.

Kidnapping scene from 1978's The Toolbox Murders

A fabulous opening sequence gives way to some mostly dull meanderings in this infamous slasher film. There are some interesting character moments, and some disturbing ones as well, but nothing comes close to keeping pace with the insane first 20 minutes, which is enough to recommend it to horror fans.

There’s very little else that can be said about this film without venturing into serious spoiler territory, so be wary of reading any further if you haven’t yet watched the movie.

It’s revealed relatively early who the murderer is, and the audience will have figured out that it is the building owner, Vance Kingsley (Cameron Mitchell), even before we are told. He hides his identity with a crooked ski mask and a pair of gloves (which the camera is preoccupied with during the murder scenes, like an American giallo), and he kills out of a sense of moral outrage. These people he murdered are of loose body and looser morals. How dare they be so sinful in the building that he owns?

THE TOOLBOX MURDERS isn’t exactly a tightly-woven tapestry of psychological suspense, so we’re not completely certain why Kingsley is such a judgmental prick. What we do know is that he believed his teenage daughter Cathy was a pillar of morality and decency, until she was killed in a car accident. Now that she’s gone, all of the immoral women must die, apparently.

The killer from 1978's The Toolbox Murders

His murder spree begins at the start of the film and continues unabated for the first 20 minutes or so, and the first time viewer will begin to question if these attacks will take up the entire running time (we should be so lucky). Hammer, drill, screwdriver—these scenes are exactly what you might expect, exploitatively grisly and cheaply gory. It’s the nail gun scene, though, that everybody remembers, and with good reason. In itself, it is a micro sleaze masterpiece.

As beautiful redhead DeeAnn (adult film actress/make-up artist Kelly Nichols) soaps herself up in the bath, that old familiar feeling overcomes her and she can’t help but pleasure herself. Meanwhile Kingsley breaks into the apartment and stands in the bathroom doorway, watching her in the act. Once she climaxes, he opens fire on her with a nail gun, resulting in an extended nude chase scene around the apartment—all set to the soothing pop strains of “Pretty Lady” by George Deaton and Terry Stubbs. If any part of this movie demands a rewatch, this is it.

Once the murder spree at the beginning is completed, that’s pretty much it. It can not sustain the pace of its promising opening, and THE TOOLBOX MURDERS then devolves into THE TOOLBOX PROCEDURALS, which isn’t nearly as entertaining. Joe does his Junior Detective act while the real detective on the case is too busy flirting with Laurie’s mother (THE BLOB’s Aneta Corsaut) to be all that concerned about the deaths or the missing girl. It’s a lot of talking and creeping around and looking for clues, which would be fine if we didn’t already know who was behind the murders, or if these scenes were interrupted with additional murders. Instead, a good chunk of the middle portion of the movie is just plain dull.

Motherless Child scene from 1978's The Toolbox Murders

There are a few uncomfortable instances which do warrant discussion, though. It’s understandable that a father would be mournful and outraged at the death of his daughter, but Kingsley holding Cathy up as a pillar of innocence begins to feel unsettling long before the end of the film. It starts to take on a sexual menace, especially when viewing the previously mentioned nail gun scene in hindsight. Here Kingsley is, watching a naked woman masturbate and chasing her with a power tool, and his mind keeps flashing to images of his dead daughter. I’m only surprised the filmmakers didn’t go full Freud and have him murder her with a drill. Then later on, when Kingsley has Laurie (kidnapped rather than killed because she reminds Kingsley of his daughter) tied to a bed, he sits beside her and croons out a rendition of “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” while sucking on a lollipop, bringing things to a whole new level of creepy.

Even if I am projecting an unintended incest angle, there’s another incest angle to swoop in and take its place. It eventually comes to light that Cathy wasn’t quite as virtuous as her creepazoid father believed. It seems that she had been carrying on a secret affair with her own cousin Kent for some time before her death. Of course, we only have Kent’s word to take on this—and seeing as how he rapes the helpless Laurie, it’s possible the affair wasn’t nearly as consensual as he claims.

The lineage of THE TOOLBOX MURDERS can be traced back to THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, and just like that earlier (and much better) film, a text crawl indicates that this was based on a true story. Here, however, this claim closes out the film rather than opens it, almost as if the filmmakers realized that they didn’t really shoot an ending. Regardless of why it was included, I’ve never seen any evidence that a real crime like this had actually occurred.

THE TOOLBOX MURDERS has three credited screenwriters—Neva Friedenn, Robert Easter, and Ann Kindberg. Friedenn and Easter also worked together on SUPERVAN (1977), OUT FOR BLOOD (1992), BLACKBELT (1992), RED SUN RISING (1994), and SWORN TO JUSTICE (1996). Kindberg is otherwise known as a producer of TV movies like A WOMAN SCORNED: THE BETTY BRODERICK STORY (1992), PROJECT: ALF (1996), and numerous IN THE LINE OF DUTY titles; and episodes of television series from THE SHIELD (2003) and GREY’S ANATOMY (2005) to PRIVATE PRACTICE (2007-2013) and HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER (2014). Most recently, she has been at work on DESIGNATED SURVIVOR (2016).

This was director Dennis Donnelly’s only feature film credit, as he was otherwise relegated to episodes of fondly-remembered television series such as ADAM-12 (1971-1975), EMERGENCY (1972-1977), HAWAII FIVE-O (1977-1980), CHARLIE’S ANGELS (1977-1981), and THE A-TEAM (1983-1985).

Cameron Mitchell (Vance Kingsley) has a massive filmography, and is no stranger to genre films. Fans may wish to seek him out in BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (1964), ISLAND OF THE DOOMED (1967), NIGHTMARE IN WAX (1969), HAUNTS (1977), THE SWARM (1978), THE SILENT SCREEN (1979), MEMORIAL VALLEY MASSACRE (1989), and countless others. He’s a busy man, and has been in something for all tastes.

Pamelyn Ferdin (Laurie) doesn’t have quite as varied of a career, but she can be found (much younger) in DAUGHTER OF THE MIND (1969), THE BEGUILED (1971), and THE MEPHISTO WALTZ (1971). But forget all that: she’ll always be the voice of Lucy Van Pelt to me. Likewise, Wesley Eure (Kent) can also be found in JENNIFER (1978), but when I look at him I only see Will Marshall from LAND OF THE LOST (1974-1976).

In 2004, Tobe Hooper helmed a (name only) remake of THE TOOLBOX MURDERS starring Angela Bettis, which if nothing else, one may awaken interest in the other.


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