*½/**** Image B Sound B- Extras B
starring Angela Bettis, Brent Roam, Juliet Landau, Greg Travis
screenplay by Jace Anderson & Adam Gierasch
directed by Tobe Hooper
by Bill Chambers I suppose I'm a hypocrite, because one of the reasons I don't like the Marcus Nispel remake of Tobe Hooper's 1974 masterpiece The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is that it's basically the Young Guns version, a fun-size snuff film with a reductively commercial aesthetic that literalizes the Grant Wood underpinnings of the original. If that's not enough, its typecasting of ubiquitous B-listers R. Lee Ermey, David Dorfman, Jessica Biel, Eric Balfour, and, arguably, apple-cheeked goddess Erica Leerhsen (because she didn't survive Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2) makes the movie feel reassuring in a way that runs philosophically counter to its grindhouse roots, thus negating any street cred it gained from hiring the earlier film's DP, Daniel Pearl. But Tobe Hooper's reimagining of Dennis Donnelly's splatter flick The Toolbox Murders has confirmed for me that I really disagree with a redux of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in principle, irrespective of practice. For the record, I don't want to see cover versions of the same year's The Godfather Part II, A Woman Under the Influence, The Conversation, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, The Parallax View, or Chinatown, either.
See, what I realized over the course of Toolbox Murders--"the" apparently still public enemy #1--is that if there's a point to remaking a low-budget shocker, it's to gloss it up, since the best of these movies serve a social function (in the Bettelheim sense) that almost single-handedly justifies adding a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down. (And I will say that Nispel's destructive artifice did little to dilute the pro-family morality of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.) With Toolbox Murders, Hooper has translated an ugly, misogynistic piece of crap into a slightly less ugly, slightly less misogynistic piece of crap that's held aloft to the extent that it is by a superb, if underexploited, supporting cast. The major innovation he and screenwriters Jace Anderson and Adam Gierasch (authors of Hooper's Crocodile) have concocted is a supernatural component that renders impotent the concept's nihilism, à la the druidical bullshit that sank the Halloween series. Oh, and they've refashioned the story into a giallo, with the maniac's identity concealed until a "Phantom"-style unmasking that does neither the curious protagonist nor us a lot of good, as this reveal must be closely accompanied by someone identifying the person to whom the face we just saw belongs. Hooper has dodged the lightning bolt of inspiration once again, and his latest is sorely lacking in dread.
Newlyweds Nell and Steven Barrows move into Hollywood's Lusman Arms on the same night a ski-masked psycho launches a killing spree inside its walls--which, carving out a patch of immortality for Toolbox Murders, actually belong to the recently-condemned Ambassador Hotel, where Robert Kennedy met his end and Frank Sinatra sang the songs. Unnerved by noisy neighbours (some of whom scream like they're dying for a reason) and a couple of human teeth lodged in her living room wall (a glib co-opting of The Tenant that had this Polanski fan rolling his eyes), Nell (newly-minted horror vet Angela Bettis) tries to convince Steven (Brent Roam) that they've got to get out, but he's afraid of losing their security deposit. In other words, woman hysterical/man rational, but with Talman Lunar Cult symbols all over the premises waiting to be deciphered, the movie shifts gears from Ira Levin to Dario Argento: Nell assumes the mantle of amateur sleuth, exploring the building's catacombs for hidden floors and missing corpses. Unlike the prototypical Argento heroine, however, she's a teacher rather than a creative type, which is doubly curious given that the Lusman Arms is to aspiring actors what the German ballet academy is to students of dance in Suspiria: a purgatory house.
Opening with a torrential rainstorm similar to the one that begins Suspiria, Toolbox Murders is, in fact, a fairly transparent Argento pastiche, though it plays a lot more like the English dub of one of the director's many late-career misfires than like classic Argento: the poor exposition is corny instead of poetically abstract (ditto the chasms in logic); the big bad's motive is maddeningly simple yet inscrutable; and the technique has minor virtues as opposed to being virtuoso. (Fitting that Hooper evokes modern-day Argento, what with the artistic decline of both men similarly indicated by low-rent expressionism--a product of self-imitation.) Toolbox Murders: it's a butcher's-menu of a title whose visceral potential--next time you mention it to someone, watch his or her face light up in mock disgust--almost outweighs its attendant stigma, and while the slayings pack a vicarious punch, nothing about the film transcends its very superfluousness.
Lions Gate presents the R-rated cut of Toolbox Murders on DVD in a middling 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. For starters, the source print suffers from a small degree of speckling that wouldn't be so distracting but for an unforgivingly dark image. Colours are pretty sickly, but I suppose that's as legitimate as the light sheen of grain throughout. With their tendency to unsettle, the offbeat flourishes of the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio are perhaps likewise appropriate, although the word "incompetence" also swims to mind: music, dialogue, and effects all sound waterlogged, while Joseph Conlan's score steamrolls anything in its path. I'd recommend avoiding this mix in favour of the alternate stereo option were the stingers--the film's ultimate raison d'être--not juicier in 5.1.
Hooper joins Anderson (a woman) and Gierasch (who does a hell of a Jack White impersonation in the film proper as the Lusman's resident handyman) on one of two feature-length yak-tracks, the second of which has journalist Calum Waddell moderating British co-producers Jacquelline Quella and Terence Potter. The first commentary is revelatory--one gets the nagging sensation that Anderson and Gierasch ought to have directed the picture, as they not only seem to know more about the final product than Hooper does ("They did?" Hooper asks incredulously after he's told that a band called Shithead recorded the ending theme), but also 'credit' Hooper with insisting on changes to their screenplay that stick out like a sore thumb, such as the elimination of a passage of time between the prologue and our introduction to the Barrows that more or less imposes an awkward real-time gimmick on the proceedings. Meanwhile, Quella and Potter, neither of whom have seen Donnelly's The Toolbox Murders in its entirety, are a couple of blatantly opportunistic fuddy-duddies unsuccessfully steered towards intelligent discourse by Scottish film critic Waddell.
In a weirdly subversive gesture, every scrap of Fulcian gore that would get the film banned from Blockbuster shelves finds its way onto the platter via a 6-minute block of deleted scenes. These might have warranted Toolbox Murders an extra half-star in context, as they're an oasis in a wasteland brought on by a rash of PG-13 horror flicks. (And even in its bowdlerized form, I'll take Toolbox Murders over the dry, asexual The Grudge.) Personal fave: the three-step torture that involves a vise, a stake, and a canister of lye. It reminds me of simpler times. A goofy shot of the toolbox-murderer lounging on the roof in his ski mask and an extended ending that incorporates a pair of dog tags into a character's death (for that de rigueur antiwar subtext, I guess) flank the unaltered carnage. A 1-minute clip ("Fearless Tales") from a post-screening Q&A at Genre Fest in which Hooper explains the origins of the term "coffin baby" plus trailers for Toolbox Murders, Riding the Bullet, May, and Crocodile round out the disc. Originally published: March 14, 2005.