When it was released in 2003, "The Toolbox Murders" was hailed as a return to form for Tobe Hooper, the sometimes genius, sometimes not-so genius director behind "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." After blowing the film off for a few years I finally gave it a spin tonight, and after reviewing all of the evidence I must say that I have to concur.
The movie, which bears little resemblance to it's namesake (1974's exploitation flick of the same name) takes place in an old historic hotel in Hollywood with a sordid history. We're introduced to the strange structure through the eyes of Nell (Angela Bettis) and her husband Steven, a bright young couple forced to shack up in the dilapidated apartment building after a hasty move across the country. Steven, a doctor just out of medical school, is forced to leave his wife alone for long periods of time because of his demanding internship. Meanwhile, Nell is an out of work teacher who finds that with too much time on her hands, her apartment begins to reveal many secrets.
Frightened and alone in an unfamiliar place, things begin to spook Nell almost immediately. Each friend she makes seems to be disappearing, her super is short on sympathy and to make matters worse the building is undergoing endless "renovations, all carried out by an incredibly creepy handyman. When Nell does raise suspicion that things are not right, she keeps being proven wrong, sometimes with hilarious results ("we were reading lines!"). Little does Nell know the building's tenants are being brutally slaughtered one by one right under her nose, and she may be next.
"The Toolbox Murders" is something of a supernatural slasher flick that seems to owe a lot to Italian "horrors" of yesteryear. Argento's "Inferno" and Fulci's "House by the Cemetery" seem to be direct influences, although to Hooper's credit what he ended up with seems to be greater than the sum of it's inspirations. The first 3/4's of the film jumps back and forth between being creepy and subdued, to being batshit crazy and off the wall gory. It's a strange mix that actually seems to work. Hooper seems to have perfected the good old "jump scare" in this film, and he uses it liberally. Using the supernatural angle of the killer to instantly plant him where he wasn't a second ago seems cheap on the surface, but the way it's played turns out to be very frightening
Bettis is terrific (as per usual) as Nell, and has her work cut out for her as her character is forced to portray happiness, sadness, fear, curiosity, boldness and more. The only other real stand out of the cast for me was Rance Howard, who turns in a great performance as the sagely old timer who ends up being a "guide" of sorts for Bettis' character.
All of the previously mentioned subtlety gets thrown out the window in the last quarter of "Toolbox," and the results are a bit mixed. The suspense level never really wanes, but I did find myself thinking that Hooper is too quick to throw out all of the mystique that he spends so much time building early on. There are also a few glaring lapses in judgement, mainly when Nell's husband goes in to the building's recesses after her WITHOUT A WEAPON, even though it is clear something very dangerous is going on. And while we are thrown out a lot of clues about exactly what is happening, the reality behind the masked killer seems to have been left intentionally (and annoyingly) ambiguous.
Tobe Hooper's "The Toolbox Murders" is a strange and highly unexpected exercise from the man whose name will always be mentioned among the "Masters of Horror." It's a fascinating mix of the supernatural, suspense, slasher and terror film, and yet it rarely seems to over stretch itself. One gets the sense while watching it that Hooper is somewhere right now exclaiming, "See, I told you I still have it!"... and after seeing the finished product, I have to say that surprisingly... I have to agree.