Saturday, November 8, 2008

Toolbox Murders, The (1978)

Directed by:
Dennis Donnelly

One of writer Stephen King's favorite horror films, this was initially cooked up by producers in response to a lucrative theatrical re-release of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. It was controversial when released for the violence, rampant misogyny and mixture of sex-and-violence, but can now be viewed as genuinely entertaining trash, with the expected gore and naked ladies, plus some unexpected bad taste ideas, rape, lollipops and implied incest... Cameron Mitchell gives what could be his finest horror movie showing as Vance Kingsley, full-time owner of a Hollywood apartment complex and part-time sick-o ski mask-wearin' slasher killer who carries around a toolbox, breaks into young ladies apartments (who half the time are in some stage of undress) and then murders them in a variety of ways. And that's not even half the story. Despite the title, there are only four 'toolbox murders' and they all happen during the first twenty minutes of the movie...

An older woman is punched in the face and is drilled in the back (and back of her head). A young blonde woman (who is kind enough to appear topless first) gets her head bashed in with a hammer. When her (presumed lesbian lover) arrives home, she gets stabbed in the stomach with a screwdriver. Then it's the longest and most-drawn out scene featuring Marianne Walter (then working as a nude model and body double), who would go on to become early 80s porno actress Kelly Nichols. She dances in front of her window in a bra and panties and then sneaks off to her bathroom for a long bubble-bath and masturbation session. Mitchell sneaks in and watches from the door before whipping out a nail gun and firing away. After running around her apartment in the nude falling down and flinging vases at her attacker, she finally gets 'nailed' in the stomach and through the head. (*This sequence would later give some ammo to morality groups protesting the 'dangers' of horror films that mixed nudity and violence; it also ended up popping up on many TV talk shows!)

After throwing a few detectives off course with a convincing show of sympathy, Vance then breaks into the apartment of 15- year-old Laurie (Pamelyn Ferdin), whose mother (Aneta Corsaut) keeps late nights working as a barmaid. Vance kidnaps the girl, takes her to his home, ties her to the bed, gags her, makes her peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, sucks on lollipops and sings several songs to her, including "Motherless Child" (!!) He has basically abducted her to take the place of his dead daughter Cathy, who was killed in a car crash years earlier. Laurie's older teen brother Joey (Nicholas Beauvy) meets up with Vance's nephew Kent (Wesley Eure), and the two start their own investigation when they're hired to clean the blood up from the newly vacant apartments. This leads to a few revelations that may surprise you. When Mitchell gets in a fight with one of them, he chases him out of the room while screeching "You damn fornicator!" After this long middle section of mostly talk (though not uninteresting or non-entertaining talk), the film picks up for a suitably gory-trashy finale. I liked this one a lot better than Mitchell's other famous genre effort, NIGHTMARE IN WAX (1966). The premise offers little new, but the acting, all-around, is surprisingly not bad at all (despite what you might read elsewhere), it's well photographed by Gary Graver, some of the dialogue scenes are reasonably well thought out, there are several pretty-good plot twists and a few bloody and creative-for-the-time kills for gore hounds. It made a lot of money on this drive-in circuit on a meager 200K budget, but was a video nasty in England and unseen there for years.

Also in the cast are Tim Donnelly (the director's father) as the main detective, Marciee Drake and Evelyn Guerrero (from several Cheech and Chong flicks) as victims and Alisa Powell (one of SATAN'S CHEERLEADERS) as someone's girlfriend. The screenplay was written by Robert Easter, Ann Kindberg (who would go on to a successful TV producer career) and Neva Friedenn (who would also go on to produce some films, including Milligan's ghastly WEIRDO). The Blue Underground DVD release looks great and sounds great and has many extras, including trailers, radio spots and an entertaining commentary track with Ferdin, Graver and producer Tony DiDio. It also has an 8-minute interview with Marianne Walter/Kelly Nichols called I GOT NAILED IN THE TOOLBOX MURDERS, where she reminisces about her experiences on this film; including ending up on the poster. Supposedly based on a true story!


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