“Will you take me? Take me to your secret world again…”
Watching the original The Toolbox Murders recently, I suddenly realized I had seen this movie already when two kitschy plaques appeared on the wall of doomed masturbator Dee Anne Devore’s apartment. In Old-West-saloon font, one read: “BEER 5¢ a glass.” The other was square and orange, showing Linus sitting with his thumb in his mouth, holding his security blanket, an illegible remark in a word balloon above him. It’s the kind of stuff you find in Salvation Army stores tossed on dusty, half-empty metal shelves. I knew with immediate clarity upon seeing the second plaque that I had secretly rented the film on VHS in 1982 while my parents were away for the weekend. It was in an oversized clamshell case, courtesy of VCI, with the “Bit by bit… by bit, he carved a nightmare!” tagline, the hammer pictograph in place of a capital T in the title, the man in the black balaclava holding a drill, and the terrified woman with recoiling forearms strategically covering the nipples of her bare breasts. Pure sleaze. I have no idea how I rented it at the age of eleven, because the proprietor of that same store had refused to rent Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip to me another time I was alone in his shop. Safeguarding me from the F-word and honest descriptions of the black experience in America, he decided I could handle the cruelest misogyny in the saddest ‘70s apartment building in Southern California: El Patio del Sequoia (which exists to this day in all its stucco glory as the Saticoy Villa Grande in Canoga Park; the sequoias are now palm trees).
But it was not the nail-gunning of a naked porn star that reminded me I had seen this video nasty, which, by any measure, is a memorable scene, especially backed by George Deaton’s melancholic easy-listening country music from which I quoted the lyric above. No, it was the glimpse of Linus that reminded me, and I knew, too, what the illegible word balloon contained, because I had this same orange plaque on my bookshelf as a child.
Linus says: “I love mankind… It’s people I can’t stand!!”
Oddly enough, this sentiment captures my attitude at 46, but I didn’t feel this way as a child, so I have no idea why a self-fulfilling prophecy was propped to one side of my dog-eared Susan Cooper books back then. But like any bric-a-brac that routinely crosses your field of vision as a child, the image of this plaque remains in the shallowest reach of dormancy, to the extent that the color orange reminds me of this plaque before it reminds me of anything else quintessentially orange: pumpkins, road cones, circus peanuts, Protestants in Northern Ireland.
I also love Linus’s sentiment in the context of The Toolbox Murders, a slight revision of which might represent Vance Kingsley’s Weltanschaaung: “I love my dead daughter… It’s women I can’t stand!!” Kingsley’s dichotomous virgin-whore rampage punishes prostitutes, lesbians, and self-pleasuring bean-twiddlers alike. His equally misogynistic nephew (Wesley Eure from Land of the Lost) even drops the murdered Devore’s dildo vibrator like a severed limb once he realizes what he’s holding. “That’s disgusting!” he says in reference to perhaps the least disgusting thing in this movie.
Watching the film the other night, I didn’t really remember Uncle Vance’s kills (outside of what I could recall reading about them online)—in order: spade drill bit for the middle-aged woman who apparently had a regular dalliance with Kingsley, perhaps in the way of sex work; claw of a hammer and a screwdriver for the thinly coded lesbian couple; and, of course, nail gun for the explicit masturbator. None of the gratuitous nudity and death seemed familiar until that orange plaque appeared. Maybe in my just faintly pubescent oblivion, the rawer moments did not disturb or register as deeply as misanthropic Linus in a field of orange.
What all horror movie aficionados/–das see in their minds’ eyes when they hear or read “Toolbox Murders”—whether they’ve seen the movie or not—is the quickly deteriorating sobriety of Cameron Mitchell’s dumpy figure in a black trench coat and that balaclava with the halo of red and white stripes. Until I saw the film recently (apparently for the second time), I could never distinguish that poster image from an actual viewing experience. To bring this story to an overweening pretentious height, the Linus plaque brought specificity and certainty to my inexact memory, in the same way that Proust suddenly had several thousand pages of personal precision to relate after tasting that madeleine dipped in lime tea. Instead of a life of fin-de-siècle French privilege and aesthetic emotional discernment, I just had a sleazy date with Dennis Donnelly’s cash grab, but it’s more about the trigger’s mechanism than the substance of what was triggered.
I know now what I was forgetting or repressing since the age of 11, and it wasn’t boobs and blood. It was the plain dreariness of settings drawn from everyday life, and there’s nothing more quotidian than El Patio del Sequoia in 1977. People being murdered here is the least of their problems—or I should say: What else could you expect in a place like this?