Toolbox Murders (2004)

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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11 years ago

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.

11 years ago

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!

11 years ago

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.

11 years ago

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…

Final Girl
Final Girl(@final-girl)
11 years ago

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!

11 years ago

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.

11 years ago

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.

Tommy V
Tommy V(@tommy-v)
11 years ago

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.)

11 years ago

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.

Binrow The Heretic
Binrow The Heretic(@binrow-the-heretic)
11 years ago

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.

11 years ago

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

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

Binrow The Heretic
Binrow The Heretic(@binrow-the-heretic)
11 years ago

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.

11 years ago

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?