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Toolbox Murders (2004)

August 11th, 2010 by unkle lancifer · 20 Comments

Greetings, from your friendly neighborhood, unrepentant TOBE HOOPER apologist; I’m sorry but I kinda love 2004’s TOOLBOX MURDERS. I know that’s not the consensus but the heart wants what the heart wants. How can a movie from 2004 fill me with such nostalgic glee? I’m not sure, maybe because it’s just so fabulously old school in its stance. No, there’s nothing very revolutionary going on here, just a plain, mostly straightforward affair cooked medium rare and served garnish free, but I find it hits the spot all the same. I don’t need any more than this. That’ll do pig, that’ll do. Oh, just allow me to break my affection down for you…


Give this guy a break will you? He drops the ball now and again but he knows what he’s doing. There may not be anything as robust as the famous door slam from THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE in TOOLBOX but there’s plenty to relish anyway. On several occasions HOOPER steers your attention one way and then slams you from another direction entirely, that’s what I call a scare that’s earned, baby. He knows what you expect and he likes to tease you. One of my favorite bits involves a bathroom medicine cabinet that is opened to reveal…nada. TOBE, you foiled the medicine cabinet scare! I could kiss you!


What a spitfire. Imagine an unhinged HOLLY HUNTER fused with a robotic praying mantis and then set free to needle at will. BETTIS just fascinates and the horror world is a better place having known her. Her character here “Nell Barrows” is more tack sharp and caffeine restless than her usual wounded birds; she’s a vintage observer who senses something afoul and won’t be stifled. She is also quietly mourning the recent death of her father and am I reading too much into the movie to say her journey is all about confronting the ugly eventuality of the grave?


BRENT ROAM is a refreshing change of pace from the lantern jawed Aryan dullards usually picked to play the rational boyfriend plus, if you ask me, he was born to wear scrubs. JULIET LANDAU is lead material and she is able to transform a sidekick part into something exceedingly sympathetic. SHERI MOON is SHERI MOON, she’s got a Manson gal meets my hippy babysitter vibe that is too strong for me to resist. Go ahead and find her annoying if you must. I want her to read me a bedtime story and teach me how to smoke. RANCE HOWARD, father to RON and CLINT, is just plain Hollywood royalty and it’s nice to see him treated as such within the film.


Director of photography STEVE YEDLIN also shot MAY, so you know he’s no slouch. There are some velvet black nighttime scenes spiked with wet, reflected colors and even the scant daytime scenes have an otherworldly, corrupt Garden of Eden quality. The interiors overall have a pungent air of romantic sleaze that bring to mind NAN GOLDIN photos. This is a low budget film that, to my eyes, looks top of the line even as it’s delighting in dilapidation.


Playing the role of the creepy Lusman Arms apartment complex is the legendary AMBASSADOR HOTEL. THE AMBASSADOR has appeared in hundreds of movies from A STAR IS BORN to SE7EN and it just drips history and personality. It was demolished by a bunch of idiots in 2006 and this is one of its last few cinematic appearances. I’m adding this title to the ever growing list in my head that says when it comes to creating horror there are three important things to consider… location, location, location.


Not unlike delicious Razzles brand treats which are first a candy and then a gum, TOOLBOX is first a slasher and then a supernatural shocker with a SUSPIRIA boner. I dig the MULHOLLAND DRIVE-light “Hollywood’s gonna stomp your dream” theme that weaves through it too. Traditionally, in name only remakes make me see red but in this case I call it kosher. TOOLBOX is not trying to be a more modern, hipper version of the original and it ends up offering a denser mythology than the previously existing one. As much as I appreciate the original and its outstanding cast, I’m glad this doesn’t go down the same torturous trail.


“Coffin Baby” as named by HOOPER, is a creepy and intimidating creation with a tasty back-story to sink your teeth into. We’re given enough information to intrigue but not so much that we feel he’s completely pinned down or knowable. TOBE does a crackerjack job of never allowing the viewer too much time to focus on the killer’s mug but delivers enough so that you don’t feel completely cheated either. We’re dealt pieces and splinters only, leaving our brains to assemble and assume the worst. Like many a great monster, Coffin Baby, as the looser in a Faustian deal, has got his cursed tragic side too. His giddy victory dance exuberance after disintegrating a victim’s face with lye makes me want to get to know him better. Last I heard there was a sequel in the making, speed it up!


If you check out the deleted scenes on TOOLIE’s DVD you’ll see some classic, over-the- top, blood splattery kills that were sadly dumped in order to obtain a useless “R” rating. Considering the film’s nearly nonexistent theatrical life this is sort of like chopping off your nose to go to a dance at a country club that won’t let you in. Filmmakers please don’t bow down to the antiquated “R,” better you should save your bloody charms for the more appreciative home viewing crowd. I’m not saying the “R’ rated TOOLBOX is too weak, just that the difference between seeing a drill going into a head and a drill going into head and then coming out of a mouth is a big one for gore fans like me.


TOOLBOX is really one of the better films that came out of the 2000’s if you believe my notoriously indiscriminate opinion. In fact, I suspect that only ageism and anti-HOOPER sentiment keeps it from being heralded as such. If this movie was released with the false claim that it was directed by a young first timer named, say “Travis Hasbro” everybody would be all over the place claiming “Travis Hasbro” was the next big thing. Well, fuck Travis Hasbro, TOBE HOOPER is the man. I hate it when people call the director of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, SALEM’S LOT, THE FUNHOUSE, the seriously underrated EATEN ALIVE, and POLTERGEIST for Pete’s sake (not to mention superior episodes of THE OTHERS and TAKEN) a “one hit wonder.” It’s called counting, my friends. I’m not blind to HOOPER’s duds but I think it’s preferable for an artist to create some great and some bad rather than all mediocre.


Just to prove I’m not all puppies and rainbows (actually, I am) here are a few, special bonus nitpicks for you cranky folks out there! Sometimes the movie may be a bit too dark (particularly during the kills), some of the sideline characters are a bit too cartoonish and dilute the tone, the closing BUDDHA STALIN song blows chunks and whoever chose the hideous glowing SLIMER fonts for the opening and closing credit sequences needs to be retroactively fired. There, I’m out! Here’s hopin’ I see you again soon Coffin Baby!

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Tags: General Horror

20 responses so far ↓

  • 1 cmcmcmcmNo Gravatar // Aug 11, 2010 at 9:57 am

    I put this in my queue after I saw your screen grab in the darkness meme – cause there was something about that shot that made it look sooooo 70s.

  • 2 TenebrousKateNo Gravatar // Aug 11, 2010 at 10:21 am

    I was really surprised to enjoy this movie as much as I did when I caught it on DVD!  I really dug its gruesomeness and style, and as you so rightly say–Sheri Moon Zombie has a powerful allure indeed.  While I’m kinda ambivalent about most cinema killers, Coffin Baby (what a NAME!) is a real creep, fusing a ghastly appearance with a real sense of scary unavoidability.  This is a really great tribute to a too-overlooked horror flick!

  • 3 lottie_of_millhavenNo Gravatar // Aug 11, 2010 at 11:15 am

    I don’t care what anyone says, this is a very good movie as far as I’m concerned. 

    And not just because Angela Bettis is one of my top crushes of all time.

  • 4 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Aug 11, 2010 at 11:20 am

    Glad I’m not as alone on this one as I thought I was! If anyone is interested TOOLBOX is currently on Fearnet and can be watched for free here…


  • 5 goblinNo Gravatar // Aug 11, 2010 at 12:06 pm

    It’s been awhile since I’ve seen ‘Toolbox Murders’, but I do remember that I was rather disappointed by the film. It started off really well with a very tense and eerie atmosphere (you are absolutely right about the location and the cinematography), but it got increasingly lackluster as it progressed. In the end, my main problem was Coffin Baby himself (itself?), or rather his/its back story, which I felt was unconvincing and even lazy in a “nobody cares about the killer’s origin anyway” kind of way. However, to be completely honest, I can’t even recall anymore what exactly it was that bothered me so much about it. Maybe it’s time I give ‘Toolbox Murders’ another go and see if my hazy, negative memories of the movie are unfounded or not…

  • 6 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Aug 11, 2010 at 12:46 pm

    Goblin, Yes, you must give it a second go. I can’t promise you’ll feel differently but now that you know what to expect you can loosen your critical eye a bit! I gotta tell you, after working in the video store mines for many a year, I discovered that a second viewing, especially of films that you were merely disappointed by rather than hated, can be definitely worth your time in some cases!

    I can think of many a movie that upon first viewing I found myself less than thrilled by and then later got really into. I think the first viewing of a movie is sort of like the first time you meet somebody. Your guard is up and you are kind of looking for red flags. The second viewing is kind of like when you get to know the person and you realize that even though they don’t do everything the way you would that they have an interesting point of you that you can gain something from. I hope that doesn’t sound crazy but I can’t seem to stop myself from attempting to personify movies!
    The complaint you have came up in a lot of the negative reviews that I’ve read on TM. They do something kind of weird in this movie where they try to explain things in a fantastic supernatural way after they’ve presented you at the beginning with a believable grounded reality. It’s not an easy leap to make really. Can we really believe that nobody has ever noticed (especially while they are renovating the building) that there is a room missing on every floor and that there is a secret penthouse throughout the structure? Can we believe that Coffin Baby has been killing people in this building to stay alive for decades and nobody investigated the building more thoroughly? It doesn’t really make sense.
    That’s where I kind of cheat and pull out my “Argento clause” and decide that things are not literal but psychological. I think the key is Nell’s dead Dad (Just as in “The Haunting” the key is Nell’s dead mom) Nell is imagining what it would be like for her father to live forever but “living forever” looks like Coffin Baby! Eventually I think she realizes, as some wise man once said, that “Sometimes dead is better!”

  • 7 Final GirlNo Gravatar // Aug 11, 2010 at 12:54 pm

    Put me in Goblin’s camp! I reallllly didn’t like Toolbox, but that was…holy crap, almost 5 years ago now. Your review definitely makes me want to give it another try. Kudos!

  • 8 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Aug 11, 2010 at 1:20 pm


    Well, at least my theory that not everybody likes “Toolbox” as much as I do has been validated!

    I do think it deserves a second look though, even just as an atypical, late to the party slasher. Here’s hoping my love of all things Bettis is not clouding my view!

  • 9 eugeniepetiteNo Gravatar // Aug 11, 2010 at 3:23 pm

    you go, unk….great post!  this is one i’ll need to check out again.  tobe is the man, despite what many people say.  i gotta give mention to the funhouse, which was one of my childhood late night tv faves.

  • 10 craigNo Gravatar // Aug 11, 2010 at 5:17 pm

    Maybe I’m a freak and totally by myself on this one, but when I saw it, I was really curious to see how they would try a re-doing of the infamous scene from the original where the woman in the tub enjoys some “alone time” before being drilled.
      Of course, this scene never ends up happening, but there is a moment where a girl is alone with her guitar and there’s some naughty close-ups of her fingers strumming the strings around the instrument’s gaping hole. Did anyone else catch this? Is it a true tongue-in-cheek moment, or a happy coincidence? I’ve always thought it was clever for anyone in my boat  craving that scene.

  • 11 Tommy VNo Gravatar // Aug 11, 2010 at 5:33 pm

    Toolbox Murders actually brought me back to horror. I had largely given up on horror films during nearly a decade of lifeless Hollywood variations (thanks to Scream) and I actually thought I was bored with the genre.
    In truth, I just had a very small  sample as my filmgoing was largely limited to Blockbuster Video and its over reliance on studio distribution.
    I honestly didn’t know they were still making small, interesting horror films.
    I wouldn’t call it a classic, but it is an uncomfortably moody 90 minutes that sticks with you until bedtime. If you’re asking more than that from your horror film you’re being kind of greedy.
    (I have still not seen the original since an aborted attempt to sit through it when I was 10 or 11 years old. It still conjures up a sense of ickiness to think about it.)

  • 12 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Aug 11, 2010 at 6:26 pm


    eugeniepetite, I love “The Funhouse”  and actually the first time I saw it I was a but underwhelmed. I had read and loved the book and was shocked that it wasn’t the same. Years later, I caught it on TV and it just completely clicked with me. “Coffin Baby” I think is sort of like “The Funhouse” monster all grown up.

    Craig, freaks will always be welcome here! I have to admit though, that guitar bit sailed right past me! (I think I was thinking of Brent Roam at the time!)
    TV, I know what you mean. I think the original is good but something about seeing Will from “Land Of The Lost” torturing Peggy from “Sigmund and the Sea Monsters” never sat well with me!

  • 13 PinchyNo Gravatar // Aug 11, 2010 at 9:57 pm

    Count me among the “pleasantly surprised that I liked it” lot. For me, it was definitely the sense of place (probably a 50/50 split between the cinematography and the physical atmosphere of the Ambassador Hotel) that stuck with me the most. They did a great job of creating a very disorienting, seemingly endless setting for all of the action to take place. But Tobe Hooper did the exact same thing in TCM and TCM2, so I shouldn’t be so surprised….
    It’s been a while since I saw it, but I vaguely remember a scene where Angela Bettis pops her head out of a window or alcove overlooking the roof that struck me as incredibly bizarre and disorienting.
    Two other films I thought achieved this same feeling were [Rec] and 6 Films to Keep You Awake: To Let.

  • 14 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Aug 11, 2010 at 10:19 pm


    Yes, there is a shot out on the roof with the skyline in the background and Coffin baby’s rocking chair/lookout post. I was just talking to a friend about how weird and eerie that shot is. One of the deleted scenes is Coffin baby out sitting on the rocking chair and it’s just as strong. I kind of wish it wasn’t cut out.  That’s exactly what I love about Hooper. He’s got such a weird eye and he’ll present you with something that will linger but he never makes a big deal or calls too much attention to it. It just stays with you anyway, like the daddy long leg hive from TCM!

  • 15 Binrow The HereticNo Gravatar // Aug 11, 2010 at 10:48 pm

    Thanks for the review – I dismissed it at the time and didn’t even know Hooper directed it.
    And since music was brought into the discussion, there’s another “May”/Angela Bettis connection – according to the “May” soundtrack CD, Jaye Barnes Luckett (who created original music for “May”, “Roman”, and “Sick Girl”) composed a theme for “Toolbox Murders.”  The theme is only so-so scary plinking, but a lot of her stuff is great.

  • 16 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Aug 11, 2010 at 11:23 pm


    Luckett must have done the cool music when Bettis starts investigating the missing rooms. It’s in the trailer I posted too. I think that music is great and I don’t understand why the movie didn’t close with it. Instead they close with a song from “Shithead” (the lead singer has a part in the movie) which just sounds really dated now. (Sorry, “Shithead”!) It may seem kind of petty but I can’t believe how sloppy the opening and closing credits are for TB. You have to fight against them to take away the real tone of the film.

  • 17 lottie_of_millhavenNo Gravatar // Aug 11, 2010 at 11:54 pm

    Wow, I had no idea that Jaye Barnes Luckett was involved in Toolbox. 

    Her song “Frox” from May still freaks me out. 

  • 18 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Aug 12, 2010 at 12:01 am

    Binrow, Thanks to you I have been youtubing the Luckett. Wow and thanks for that!

  • 19 Binrow The HereticNo Gravatar // Aug 12, 2010 at 8:02 pm

    I don’t know how much music in “Toolbox Murders” is Luckett’s, but I don’t think I heard the theme from the CD (which is kind of ho-hum) anywhere in the trailer.
    My favorite track is “Hide and Seek” – and it looks like that’s on YouTube too – cool.  Poperratic is the name she used for the album “The Vagus Nerve” and it’s worth picking up.

  • 20 TVSANo Gravatar // Aug 13, 2010 at 3:56 am

    Sounds reasonably good considering it’s Hooper. I adored LifeForce from the first time I saw it and Invaders from Mars was watchable, but Eaten Alive has always eaten me alive. I’ve tried to watch it three or four times and betwixt the awful music/sound design, the Bava on Moonshine and Crank sets and Lighting and Truly (but realistically) awful personages, I’ve just never been able to finish it. It is really too terrible for me to get thru. And I’m not saying it’s poorly crafted, either. It’s just flat out ugly. Anyone else feel the same? No Protagonist, No go, n’est-ce pas?

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