THE TOOLBOX MURDERS
Directed by Dennis Donnelly. 1978. United States.
THE TOOLBOX MURDERS wastes no time in getting down to business. Within fifteen minutes, three women have been murdered with a power drill, a hammer claw, and a screwdriver in typically graphic fashion. Most slasher films settle for just one. Primarily known for its status as a Video Nasty, THE TOOLBOX MURDERS also found itself on an episode of 60 Minutes as an example of the extreme misogyny present in the horror films of the time. Given the evidence presented in the strong, nauseating opening fifteen minutes, I can see the rationale in calling it that. But the point that the feminist protesters, moral majority watchdogs, and television producers seemed to miss was that a film can be ABOUT misogyny without BEING misogynistic. But I digress...
The Traumatic Event.
It's the stepping-off point for virtually every slasher film ever made. Whether it's a prank gone wrong, a terrible accident, a cold-blooded murder or just a tragic mistake, the Traumatic Event provides the killer with his or her motive and sets the narrative action in motion. The Traumatic Event in THE TOOLBOX MURDERS, the death of a young girl in an automobile accident, is a bit lacking given the bloodshed that will follow, but it is a staple of the slasher film. What provides even more of a motive is what the killer is listening to as he drives to the location where he will soon run through three young women in a Richard Speck-esque orgy of destruction. He's listening to a radio preacher, a real fire and brimstone guy, ranting about sin and evil. In proper Christian Fundamentalist fashion, the sin and evil our killer feels the compulsive need to eliminate is... wait for it... healthy sexual expression.
The fact that sexuality is the real target of the killer is nothing new to slasher film fans. It's almost a given. The young, innocent virgin will survive the massacre but the fun-loving, sexually active young men and women will not. While the mixture of sex and violence present in slasher films is partially just a way to get young men in the theaters, the insinuation that human sexuality is to be punished, repressed or eliminated is something I find far more distasteful than bared breasts and stage blood.
This is the crux of the argument presented by some genre apologists as a way of justifying the moral worth of horror movies. They will argue that slasher films present a "message", that they are morality tales all about the dangers of sexual promiscuity. Now I don't know how many fans of slasher films adhere to this moral message, but that doesn't matter. Equating sex with immorality and declaring that it should be some kind of punishable offense is far from being a “moral message”. In a slasher film, the punishment is violence and/or death, the most extreme reaction to a normal, healthy behavior imaginable. That does not constitute a “moral message”. In fact, that's an extremely immoral message.
But that discussion assumes a level of subtext that THE TOOLBOX MURDERS doesn't even pretend to have. If it has anything to say, it is lost amid all the hyperbolic acting and gruesome killings. It is actually an entertaining little film, slicker and better filmed than most of the slashers that came after it. It was released in 1978, two years before FRIDAY THE 13TH made this kind of graphic bloodletting a major financial enterprise, and has a distinct giallo feel to it, right down to the ski mask-clad killer, perhaps a nod to Martino's TORSO, released a few years prior. This kind of gleeful malice guaranteed it an audience in the grindhouses and drive-ins.
One of the film's saving graces - though it can only be considered as such in hindsight - was that it was released in 1978, rather than later in the slasher cycle. Had the film still been in production after HALLOWEEN hit it big, we would have received a much different film. As it stands, only the first half of THE TOOLBOX MURDERS feels familiar. The last half is much more giallo than slasher and it goes completely batshit crazy in its final twenty minutes. It ultimately emerges as a kind of forerunner to the more standard American slashers of the 1980s. Looking back at the film now in its proper historical context, it becomes all the more apparent that THE TOOLBOX MURDERS, while deeply flawed and incredibly distasteful at times, is actually a much better film than it is given credit for, even by fans. It is also much more effective than the vast majority of the films that followed it.
Sure, it might be simplistic, grim, and excessively violent - though I personally have no problems with a film being any of those things, even all three at once - but it has a certain kind of maniacal charm. It's a good-looking piece of exploitation with a few incredibly tense and visually interesting moments (Marianne Walter's masturbatory romp in a bubble bath and eventual nail gun death is one of the greatest of all slasher set-pieces) and just enough plot to keep the whole thing moving swiftly along. It gives the viewer everything they need to and nothing that they don't. It doesn't complicate itself or bog the proceedings down in excessive side plots or exposition. It does exactly what it promises to do and it does it incredibly well.