In the early ‘80s, academics, the sociologists, the psychologists and especially the feminists, caught wind of the growing popularity of slasher films and went a little funny in the head with horror and dismay. Lord help us, what did these pictures say about the state of the culture? One after another they undertook major studies, attempting to determine what kind of lasting effect these evil films (what with their blending of sex and brutal murder) would have on the delicate psyches of the Young People of Today, especially the boys. The police became interested in these studies, as did the government.
What if it came out that these slasher films were turning kids into a generation of vicious monsters who cared nothing about human life? We’d seen it happen once already, when comic books destroyed an entire generation back in the ‘50s and couldn’t afford to let it happen again.
The funny thing about all these studies is that for all the hundreds of nasty, bloody, icky pictures they examined, they concluded that the biggest bugaboo of them all, the one film that could single handedly bring down all of Western Civilization, was The Toolbox Murders. What makes it funny is that when the ultra low-budget grindhouse picture was released in ‘78, no one noticed.
It was only after the frantic, cautionary studies started coming out and the “experts” started popping up on the talk shows and the news programs to condemn the film that people started mobbing their local video stores, eager to see what all the hubbub was about. Only then did The Toolbox Murders become the cult classic it is today and even then it earned that status less for what it was than for the ridiculous outrage it spawned. In the same way, no one cared about I Spit on Your Grave until Roger Ebert declared it to be the most repellent, disgusting movie ever made. Will these people never learn?
Pre-dating as it did the slasher film era (it was released seven months before Halloween) The Toolbox Murders was more clearly inspired by the Italian Giallos, with its whodunnit structure, its focus on a string of savage sex crimes and its twist ending. It even starred the great Cameron Mitchell, who’d also starred in the grandaddy of the Giallos, Mario Bava’s 1964 film Blood and Black Lace. Sadly though, TV director Dennis Donnelly didn’t quite have the stylistic chops of those Italian directors and so approached the film like another episode of Adam-12, but with more boobs and blood.
Apart from Cameron Mitchell, Donnelly did have two other things going for him. First was his director of photography Gary Graver, who was Orson Welles’ DP throughout the ‘70s (until sliding into exploitation and porn), who needless to say was quite good. The other was Wesley Eure (as Mitchell’s nephew), in his first role since starring in TV’s Land of the Lost. Easily recognizable at the time, his role here drew shocked laughter from audiences who weren’t expecting to see the clean-cut, Sleestack-battling Will in a sleazy movie like this, especially doing some of the things he does.
The plot is a simple one. A ski-masked maniac kills off the sexy young tenants of an L.A. apartment complex one by one using (as the title would suggest) the contents of a toolbox. Then he kidnaps a teenage girl (Pamelyn Ferdin, who provided Lucy’s voice in the early Peanuts TV specials) and keeps her bound and gagged as things take several creepy turns..
Yup, that about sums it up. But what do you expect for a $165,000 movie?
About half an hour in we get what would be remembered as the film’s iconic sequence, which not only graced the posters, but was held up by any number of outraged feminist groups and newscasters as the most despicable thing ever filmed. A woman (future porn star Kelly Nichols, here using the name Marianne Walter) disrobes, gets in a tub and masturbates to an awful country song. Then the ski masked killer shows up, chases the nude woman around the apartment for a bit and dispatches her with a nail gun to the forehead.
Nowadays it seems fairly tame (at least if you’ve seen enough horror films), but at the time, hoo-boy. It was shown on countless TV shows as the ultimate bad example and earned the film hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of free publicity. In an article for TV Guide Stephen King cited it as his favorite movie murder of the ‘70s and Brian DePalma paid homage to it while amplifying and exaggerating the sexual subtext in Body Double.
Admittedly, taken out of context like that it makes the film (at least to the more twisted members of the audience) look much more entertaining than it actually is. The rest of the film surrounding it, though, is another story. For a picture that takes the form of a whodunnit, there’s never any real question about whodunnit. The holes in the ski mask leave it perfectly clear who’s killing off the tenants with assorted power drills and electric screwdrivers. And after the kidnapping the mask disappears completely as the film switches genres, from a whodunnit to a police procedural.
While on the surface there’s nothing terribly unique about Mitchell’s handyman/religious fanatic/murderous psychopath, he did bring a number of small touches to the performance that make it memorable, like the fact that he’s constantly humming and singing quietly to himself. According to the producers, that was all a Mitchell improvisation and certainly added a layer of eerieness to an already fine performance. Unfortunately there’s simply not too much else going on here apart from the bathtub scene and Mitchell’s performance. Knowing that you’re watching Will from Land of the Lost and Lucy from the Charlie Brown specials helps some (especially if you hated Land of the Lost and the Charlie Brown specials), but it’s not enough to carry what is essentially a slow, drab, suspenseless picture.
And the fact that it is so slow and drab gives viewers a little too much space to start asking questions like, “Why does it take the cops so long to focus in on the handyman with the toolbox as a suspect in a string of murders involving power tools?”
Maybe it doesn’t matter. The joke was on the do-gooders, though. They made this cheap little, ignored film a hit. Not only did the film go on to make a lot of money, it inspired many other, much nastier films which also went on to make a lot of money. And however much the uptight academics wanted to find the worst, not a one of their studies could draw any connection between slasher films and long-term psychological damage. So a few years later they started looking at videogames instead.