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The Toolbox Murders (2003)
Director: Tobe Hooper

review by Tony Lee

Tobe Hooper has received a great deal of bad press for decades. Unashamedly, I'm a big fan of all his works and have long thought much of the critical scorn was unfair. Ever since the mid-1980s, it's been the norm that a majority of professional reviewers and so-called horror fans have knocked Hooper at every opportunity. With so many blunt remarks asserting Lifeforce (1985), Spontaneous Combustion (1989), and The Mangler (1995), 'make no sense whatsoever', there's a clear failure on the part of audiences to recognise surrealism and homage in this accomplished director's work. At a time when Hollywood's creature factory gave us the spectacular but vacuous Lake Placid (1999), Hooper's lower budget take on the subject, Crocodile (2000), was ignored - despite minority views that it's superior drama. (Further reading: I strongly recommend John Kenneth Muir's fine career-survey, Eaten Alive At A Chainsaw Massacre: The Films Of Tobe Hooper, McFarland, 2002).

And so we come to Hooper's surprising remake of Dennis Donnelly's former 'video nasty', The Toolbox Murders. The original was made in 1978, and it's still cut (a total of one minute and 46 seconds) by the BBFC for its region 2 DVD release. Hooper knowingly guides the material away from the earlier shocker's routinely misogynistic killing spree (although a version of the nail-gun attack is present here) and, moving against the current trends for entirely 'literal' visualisations of horror aspects on the cinema screen, he defiantly takes an esoteric detour, creating an atmospheric chiller with impressively theatrical set pieces.

Nell and Steven Barrows (Angela Bettis and Brent Roam) have just moved to Los Angeles and have taken up residence in the rundown Lusman Arms apartment building, a former hotel. The place is haunted and, left alone by her nightshift-doctor husband, Nell sets out to discover the supernatural source and meaning of all those worrying noises that keep her awake. Nell's jogging friend, sexpot Julia (Juliet Landau, from TV's Buffy) is one of the first victims - predictably, but none of the staff, and certainly not the local cops, willingly accepts Nell's suspicions about other vanished residents. When she learns more about the alleged 'historical' significance of the Lusman, and then becomes intrigued by the curious symbols that adorn particular walls, Nell's concerned quest exposes the strange building's 'bad juju', and ultimately places her in frightful jeopardy.

Hooper's absolute competence as an orchestrater of terror is such that even the most obviously clichéd scary moments are still very likely to make you jump. The desperate Nell roams shadowy corridors in search of clues about vanished neighbours or evidence of the building's missing rooms but she uncovers no logical explanations. The killer is eventually revealed to be a masked menace, Coffin Baby (Christopher Doyle), who is more akin to the invulnerable Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger than any of those plainly human slayers from the 1980s' stalk 'n' slash cycle. Driven - or empowered by black magic, the nearly mute, dark-robed intruder uses a variety of power tools on his chosen victims and, crucially, he moves freely and undetected about each and every floor of the Lusman. This time round, Hooper's wholly unexpected homage is Argento's magnificent Inferno (1980), and fans of that masterly horror may well guess the secret of the building in Hooper's film.

For our heroine Nell, the inconvenience of constant renovation works being carried out - but often stalled, on her new home, is partly what prompts her early inquiries. The pace of this investigation is quite expertly timed, without risking viewers' impatience - or leaving us behind, scratching our heads over too many outré surprises at once. It's so rare that an occult terror works as well as this, that many fans of the subgenre probably won't appreciate the genuine worth of Toolbox Murders on the first viewing. As ever, the devil lurks in the details, and, just like Hooper's filmmaking skills might go undetected by inattentive fans, some fraction of this superb movie's entertainment value is not readily apparent.
Toolbox Murders

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