Nell (Angela Bettis), a teacher trying to find work, has recently temporarily moved into a rathole of an apartment complex with her medical student hubby. Just as soon as she begins making acquaintances with tenants, they begin disappearing. Armed with a compulsion to know where her annoying neighbors went, Nell discovers that there’s much more hidden behind the walls of the old building along with a sinister secret…
Imagine you’re in a restaurant with nice décor and passable atmosphere. The food arrives, but is rather bland. Annoyingly, the aware-of-his-failings chef seems to have tossed on some buck thirty-nine seasoning salt to help enliven the otherwise flavorless dish. You try and enjoy while all along murmuring to your significant other that you’ll never make this mistake again. That’s Tobe Hopper’s Toolbox Murders in a situational nutshell. Originally planned as a Lucky McGee (May, The Woods) project, this throwback remake/re-imagining/re-something of Dennis Donnelly’s 1978 The Toolbox Murders is slasher tedium personified.
It should go without saying to our cultured Sprayer readership that slashers are inherently derivative of themselves. In a genre that already continually dines on itself, contemporary examples of masked maniacs stalking hapless victims are a dime a dozen. In that regard, Hooper’s film isn’t necessarily bad, it just takes the long way with a protracted midsection that sags like a once-buxom 90-year-old. Hooper and Bettis basically try to dress up a formulaic C-grade hack n’ slash that can’t help but get quickly repetitive. For some unknown reason, Hooper frames what seems like every fourth shot at shin height looking upward at the actors or ominous building. One of the greatest shots in modern horror and thee greatest in the director’s career arrived in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre‘s “Pam homestead approach” at this very angle. That doesn’t mean we need to see the camera lying on the ground ad nauseum here.
Bettis does what she can competently, but for the majority pulls off the Nicolas Cage-baffled look. That’s one of the chief problems; the film hinges too much on Bettis carrying the boring first and second portions despite the character of Nell being so damn vanilla surrounded by characters that no one cares about. Not to mention a creepy janitor that looks like former WWF/ECW star Raven that emits about as much stupid menace as the wrassler.
There’s also a general sense of uncaring to the production. One small example being a dialogue scene between Bettis and Rance Howard. Howard is delivering a short monologue about the evil nature of the building to Bettis while standing in a still-in-construction piece of the new renovation. For one half of his lines, he’s standing with his face obscured by a plastic sheet sliced down the middle. Then you can see an “invisible” force gently fold the plastic back just a tad to reveal the rest of his speech. Would it have been much trouble to frame up the shot and find the right placement with a floor marker before shooting? It’s small details like this that make an already numbing experience grating on the nerves. An entire hour is seemingly spent biding time for the climax; while the bored viewer ponders if that last half hour will really be worth the endurance test.
Surprisingly, by the time Nell Meets the Freak Beast, Toolbox Murders finally snaps to life for the first time–in the last twenty minutes. Hooper cranks the tension well as Bettis, instead of growing some Jaime Lee-brand testicles, is reduced to a terrified Olive Oyl. The monster, “Coffin Baby”, is like a hodgepodge between The Phantom…of the Opera and Leatherface which allows Hooper to make some visual references to Texas Chain Saw like dried flesh ornaments amongst morbid clutter. Maybe I’m being too harsh, but a good forty flavorless minutes could be chopped without anyone noticing. Like I’ve said, as wholly unoriginal slasher pap, it’s not too bad. Though with more focus on the build without the uneventful progression and some more grue–Hooper’s comeback could have been truly great. As Toolbox Murders stands, it’s merely frustrating both as a horror film and a fight to keep your eyes open.