Toolbox Murders, The (2003)

Starring Angela (May) Bettis, Juliet (“Angel”) Landau, Brent (Tremors 4) Roam

Directed by Tobe Hooper

Saturday night (November 1st, 2003) we had the good fortune to win passes from a very cool horror site, to be among the first people to ever see Tobe Hooper’s return to hardcore horror, the remake of The Toolbox Murders.

My first reaction, upon hearing about the remake, was disgust. This whole trend of remaking EVERYTHING just kills me. No one is original, no one is creative. To make matters worse, I’d read this remake was a remake in name only…it had zero to do with the original film! Why would someone as talented as Tobe Texas Chainsaw Massacre & Poltergeist Hooper stoop to such bilge? But, hey, the passes were free and I would be seeing a film in the same theater as Tobe Hooper.

This new remake tells the story of Lusman Tower, an aging apartment building somewhere near Hollywood. It’s under major renovations and desperate to find and keep new tenants despite the rather squalid conditions. The building is populated with several Hollywood stereotypes; the young ingenue looking to get her break, the exercise obsessed camgirl, the bitchy society maven and her mealy-mouthed husband, their horny teenage son, a young black actor, and finally a young wanna-be musician chick who has far more attitude than talent (and a giant skinhead asshole boyfriend to boot). The building employs a wacky apartment manager, a courteous Hispanic doorman, and a creepy shaggy-headed maintenance man. There’s also a creepy old man who has lived in the building for nearly 60 years who knows quite a bit about it’s history. And it’s a dark, twisted history.

Enter Nell, our heroine (Bettis). She’s a schoolteacher looking for a gig. Her husband is a hard-working med student working in an ER until he graduates. They took the apartment because it was cheap, but regret it almost immediately. As they settle in, people begin to disappear, and the usual slasher mayhem begins.

And I do mean the usual. The first half or so of the film seems atrocious. Every slasher cliche comes into play. They show the toolbox, then the next victim wanders off alone and gets killed in some gruesome way involving a tool of some sort. The characters are cartoons, the killer is just a faceless guy in a black mask, there’s no apparent motive. Nell is sure something weird is going on, but quickly gets a reputation as a kook with the authorities and the residents of the building. Halfway in, I’m seriously uncomfortable. It’s just a bunch of 80’s horror cliches thrown into a corny script with lots of wacky characters. 90% of the scares at that point had been bullshit “someone appears behind someone else and scares them, but it isn’t the killer” startle scares.

Then…Hooper flips the switch.

In a way, this is similar to Alice in Wonderland. There’s a moment where Nell’s investigations into the happenings around this building take her behind the scenes…through the looking glass as it were. From there on in this is no 80’s slasher. This is Tobe Hooper pulling out all the stops and cranking those screws as tight as they’ll go. He seems to be saying “See all that stuff? All that weak 80’s slasher stuff, like the original movie? Now watch what I can do when I really want to make you squirm.”

This is Hooper’s Scream. He takes every convention of a horror genre (the giallo-influenced slashers of the 80’s) and uses it against you. Once Nell crosses that threshhold and starts the third act, watch out. Things get very, very intense. The gore starts coming fast and furious. The scares become genuine…you just want her OUT, NOW. Just like watching Marilyn Burns trying to escape from that fucked up family in the original Chainsaw. Characters stop acting like horror movie characters and start behaving like real people. Funny at times, sure, but so are real people! Hooper and the writers seem to want to prove that they can play within the rules of the “real world” and still scare the shit out of you.

And they did.

There are several intense, terrifying moments in this flick. They even scared Jenn…and she doesn’t scare easy. This is a spoof of Hollywood and bad horror flicks that becomes a deadly serious horror flick. The end may be a letdown to some, but it’s kind of a given…in creating this villain, they made someone to love and hate at the same time. There are many questions left unanswered…so a sequel is simply a MUST.

This doesn’t even have distribution yet. It’s an independent film. So it could be a year or more before you poor saps get to see it. But when that time comes, GO. It’s one HELL of a ride, the best horror flick I’ve seen on the big screen in some time. (Freddy Vs. Jason was fun…but this is genuinely terrifying.)

4 out of 5

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Jon Condit

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