Exploitation movies are the most difficult genre to recommend. It's not so much that viewer tastes have to be taken into account -- although arguably, that's something worth bearing in mind in many cases -- it's more an issue of understanding the point of view from which these films originated. As Tarantino has mentioned before (most recently in 'Not Quite Hollywood'), their appreciation comes with at least some consideration to the history that fashioned and informed these maverick productions. The genre has a long and varied history, from the brothel targeting pornographic films of the silent era, to the cautionary films of the 1930s (think 'Reefer Madness'), to the grindhouse period of the 60s and 70s.
Even the label "exploitation" is a bit of a misnomer, as the identification of these movies has less to do with content and more to do with expected viewer reaction. It's a broad blanket-term for any motion picture with a subject matter deemed suggestive, sensational, and shocking. This covers a wide spectrum of films, including Todd Browning's 'Freaks,' Vilgot Sjöman's 'I Am Curious,' Romero's zombie flicks, and spaghetti westerns like Corbucci's 'Django'. Sadly, and with the ill-fated help of today's sudden resurgence of graphic horror/slasher movies, expectations from contemporary audiences are set pretty high for any erstwhile films that fall beneath this umbrella term.
This is where 'The Toolbox Murders' comes in, the only feature-length film directed by Dennis Donnelly -- 80s television director of 'Charlie's Angels' and 'The A-Team'. This would-be shocker is unlikely to impress many of today's viewing audience anticipating explicit violence and gore, since there is little of either, though it does have its moments. The murder segment with Dee Ann (Marianne Walter) is the most noteworthy and best known. (Her image graces the poster and cover art of the Blu-ray keepcase.) Furthermore, this twisted tale about a handyman's fixation on lewd and immoral women is not one of the best representative choices of the genre. So, what exactly is it that continues to save the movie from oblivion and build its cult status, having recently been shown at the Grindhouse Film Festival in Portland, Oregon.
This modest exploitation offering has an interesting style. While not the type of material normally associated with the video nasties, 'Toolbox Murders' possesses a kind of maliciousness, despondent and morose air commonly found in Italian thrillers, known as Giallo -- a subgenre of the exploitation universe. It's a methodical, stylish, and very cinematic display of murder sequences set within some bizarrely dramatic plotlines. And Donnelly's 'Toolbox' revels in this. Not only are the death scenes funnily exaggerated (neighbors are welcomed to walk right in and stare at the butchered victims), but it actually tries to tell a truly weird and freakish story to explain the mayhem. If for nothing else, the movie is an interesting attempt to create the American giallo.
For about the first half hour of the movie, an unknown assailant wearing a ski mask goes on a brutal killing spree at a small apartment complex in Los Angeles. The influences are made fairly clear with a killer slowly wielding his instruments of death so that they shimmer and glisten in the light before being drenched in blood. At one point, he even holds an electric drill in front of the camera to build suspense, which is nicely done. Unfortunately, things grow a bit stale going into the third act when the entire film becomes a kidnap/captivity/torture scenario. While at once creepy and disturbing, the story's edgy beginning simply isn't well supported or complemented by these events. The sudden and abrupt ending only compounds matters and leaves even the most hardened horror fanatic feeling somewhat short-changed.
In the end, however, 'The Toolbox Murders' is an entertaining bucket of sleaze and bizarre, over-the-top psychodrama. It remains the same grindhouse classic that's often overlooked by other genre entries of the same period. Still, this exploitation flick is one that shouldn't be missed by horror cinema aficionados and enjoyed as a fun product of schlock.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Blue Underground brings 'The Toolbox Murders' to Blu-ray for the first time on a BD25 single-layer disc housed in the standard blue keepcase. The cover art features the iconic poster art of the film's most memorable murder segment on a plain white background. The disc goes straight to the main menu with full motion captures and the normal tab selections.
Considering the print is now over thirty-years-old, the film looks to be in excellent shape, looking light years better than my antique VHS copy. Back in '03, Blue Underground also released a DVD of this memorable slasher flick, and this hi-def version is also a definite upgrade.
Either way, fans of grindhouse classics will be pleasantly surprised by this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode, framed in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The transfer sports strong, well-balanced contrast and brightness levels, which give the picture a nice rejuvenated characteristic to really show off the 1970s feel of the movie. The thin layer of film grain adds to its cinematic quality and only becomes distractingly noticeable in a few interior shots. While blacks are consistently deep and stable, some objects in the background tend to disappear within the shadows. Colors are very strong and satisfying -- particularly reds and greens -- and flesh tones appear warm and healthy. Details are exactly as would be expected from a source of this vintage. The image won't contend against other, more-favored catalog titles, but fine lines and textures are solid nonetheless and appreciably revealing.
It always sounds best when engineers preserve as much of the original design as possible for these "digitally enhanced" audio presentations. And for 'Toolbox Murders', this DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is no different, only significantly cleaner and sharper when compared to previous versions. One shouldn't expect much from a low-budget, thirty-plus recording, but it shows good clarity and cleanly rendered vocals while still lacking any low-frequency effects. The lossless track never really reaches any high notes and is devoid of acoustical presence. In fact, the mix is not only maintained in the front soundstage throughout, it also appears to be delivered all by the center channel. Atmospherics are occasionally employed for light ambiance, but they never seem to move away from the middle of the screen. In the end, it's nothing special, but it gets the job done, which is perfectly suitable for an exploitation flick.
For this Blu-ray edition of 'The Toolbox Murders', Blue Underground carries over the same supplemental material as the 2003 DVD release, sans the still gallery and the Cameron Mitchell bio. It's a nice collection, but it's also greatly lacking.
'The Toolbox Murders' may not impress contemporary audiences expecting graphic violence and shocking gore, but this grindhouse classic remains a fun little exploitation flick full of weird, sleazy psychodrama. This Blu-ray edition of the movie arrives with an enjoyable audio/video presentation but a greatly lacking collection of bonus material. Those with an interest in the exploitation genre and horror cinema aficionados won't want to miss this one.