The Toolbox Murders 4K UHD/ Blu-ray Review

Written by Robert Gold

Blu-ray released by Blue Underground

Directed by Dennis Donnelly
Written by Neva Friedenn, Robert Easter and Ann Kindberg
1978, 94 minutes, Rated R
Released on January 18th, 2022

Starring:
Cameron Mitchell as Vance Kingsley
Pamelyn Ferdin as Laurie Ballard
Wesley Eure as Kent Miller
Nicolas Beauvy as Joey Ballard
Tim Donnelly as Det. Jamison
Aneta Corsaut as Joanne Ballard
Faith McSwain as Mrs. Andrews

 

Review:

After his teenage daughter dies in a car accident, Vance Kingsley has a mental breakdown and naturally goes on a killing spree. His victims all live in the apartment complex he owns and sometimes works as a handyman. Using such helpful tools as a hammer, screwdriver, nail gun and power drill, he leaves a trail of bloody corpses that have police baffled. His rampage ends when he sees pretty, young Laura Ballard, who reminds him of his daughter. He abducts Laura and takes her back to his house where he binds and gags her and proceeds to treat her like a child. Laura’s brother Joey doesn’t believe the police are capable of finding her, so he enlists the help of his friend Kent to help him search. What he finds is shocking and not at all what he expected.

In 1974, the slasher film was just coming into its infancy with the releases of Bob Clark’s Black Christmas and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Four years later, John Carpenter would influence the genre’s trajectory for decades with his breakout hit Halloween. Just a few months prior that same year, prolific television director Dennis Donnelly (Charlie’s Angels, Emergency!) made a movie far more salacious and reviled, one that embraced the value of a good exploitation title – The Toolbox Murders. If Leatherface can dispose of a bunch of trespassing hippies with a chainsaw, just think of what an average person could do with a whole box full of hardware tools!

Donnelly and producer Tony DiDio (Sunset Cove) use Chain Saw as inspiration when it comes to shock value, but where that film shows restraint in onscreen bloodshed, they open their picture with a twenty-minute string of gruesome murders that leave little to the imagination. Donnelly even busts out some titillating nudity in the process. Written by Neva Friedenn (Out for Blood), Robert Easter (Sworn to Justice), and Ann Kindberg (producer on The Shield and The Haunting of Hill House), Toolbox explores the mind of a man detached from reality, desperate to connect with his deceased daughter. The script lures audiences in after the brutal opening act only to pull the rug out from under them during the surprisingly dark finale. Upon release, critics despised the picture, but audiences were intrigued and it was instantly profitable. In the UK, it landed a spot on the ever growing Video Nasties list of banned films and its notoriety grew.

What keeps this film above board is the highly entertaining performance from the always-reliable Cameron Mitchell (Without Warning, From a Whisper to a Scream), who brings a humanity to the unhinged Vance. The film goes through the motions of disguising the killer’s identity in the opening act, but to anyone that has ever seen Mitchell, there is zero doubt that it is him behind the ski mask. The majority of his screen time is opposite his female captive, Laurie Ballard, played by Pamelyn Ferdin (The Beguiled). It’s hard to say they have great chemistry beyond victim and kidnapper, but their scenes are a highlight. Mitchell brings a complexity to the role with his idiosyncrasies – including his love of lollipops and singing.

 

The supporting cast is led by Nicolas Beauvy (The Cowboys) as Laurie’s brother Joey, a genuinely decent teen doing everything he can to find his sister. Wesley Eure (Land of the Lost) plays Kent Miller, who reluctantly agrees to help Joey search, even offering to ask his Uncle Vance if he has any insight. Eure gets to step away from his clean-cut TV image into a character with a lot more depth. Aneta Corsaut (The Blob, The Andy Griffith Show) is the concerned mother, Joanne Ballard, barely keeping it together while police look for her daughter. The director’s brother, Tim Donnelly (Emergency!), appears as Det. Jamison, the cop on the case who disappears for large sections of the movie, which is fine, as his subplot feels like filler and doesn’t really go anywhere.

The Toolbox Murders tells its story with a truly bizarre structure that will keep audiences surprised. Donnelly frontloads the first half-hour of the picture with the majority of the kills before settling in to spend time getting to know our hero, Joey. The killer’s identity is revealed almost immediately, removing the mystery of a whodunit and creating a character study. The final fifteen minutes are nowhere near as bloody as the opening, but the scenes are far more shocking. The script challenges what is typically expected from the hero, villain and victim and the final shot is a gut punch.

Longtime cinematographer Gary Graver (Mortuary) had a storied career shooting films with everyone from Orson Welles (The Other Side of the Wind) to Fred Olen Ray (Evil Toons), with a detour through the world of hardcore pornography through the 1980s. In this film there is an abundance of scenes set in bright daylight that are not particularly flashy, but the murder sequences and other nighttime settings are creatively lit and generate a disturbing atmosphere.

The Toolbox Murders has earned quite a reputation over the years, and in part rightly so, but the film is more than just blood, nudity and mayhem. The character of Vance is intriguing as we get to know more about him through his interactions with Laurie. He is a man consumed by grief over the loss of his daughter, spiraling out of control. Make no mistake, this movie is pretty trashy, but it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. It’s worth watching and will likely stick with you for a time. When Stephen King was asked to name his favorite horror movies of the 1970s, this was in his top five. Bringing things full circle, in 2004, Tobe Hooper directed an in-name-only remake.

 

Video and Audio:

Presented in the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, the uncut negative has received a new 4K 16 bit scan and restoration that yields some very impressive results. This is an ultra-low budget film that always looked a bit rough before Blue Underground first released it on DVD and early Blu-ray. Now, in this new 4K UHD edition with Dolby Vision HDR, we are treated to a razor-sharp picture that maintains a healthy level of film grain that also brings forth a great amount of fine detail, particularly in hair and fabrics. Colors are well-saturated and flesh tones appear natural throughout.

The original mono recordings are presented via DTS-HD MA 1.0 track and have also been remastered into both a DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround mix and a new Dolby Atmos track. Dialogue levels are always clear and understandable while music cues are well-balanced and never intrusive. Optional subtitles include English, French and Spanish.

 

Special Features:

There are two audio commentaries on this release, starting with a vintage track featuring producer Tony DiDio, cinematographer Gary Graver, and actress Pamelyn Ferdin, who reveals this is her first time watching the film from start to finish. The conversation is laid back and entertaining as DiDio details how the project came together. He and Graver discuss more of the technical aspects while Ferdin talks about the challenges of her role. There are several fun Cameron Mitchell memories and plenty of other good production stories.

The second commentary is a newly-recorded session with film historians Troy Howarth and Nathaniel Thompson. This is a lively discussion filled with a nonstop series of behind-the-scenes trivia and lesser known facts about the production. They talk about the script’s themes and subtext as well as its bizarre structure. There are some more fun Mitchell stories and other bits about the cast and crew and they offer a defense of the picture against its sleazy reputation.

In the interview segment Drill Sergeant: Unpacking the Toolbox (2022, 20 minutes), director Dennis Donnelly recalls the experience of making this film as being one of his happiest. This is the first interview I recall seeing with him and it is nice to hear his story. He has high praise for everyone involved, from the producer and cinematographer to the composer and production manager. He goes on to discuss the gory content and nudity and has some good stories of directing Cameron Mitchell.

Tools of the Trade: Killer Reflections (2022, 27 minutes) catches up with actor Wesley Eure, who shares the director’s enthusiasm of what a fun time it was making this movie. He talks about his success playing a good guy on television and the appeal of playing someone against type. He shares his memories of the cast and some of the more challenging things his character did to them. He closes with a fun story about seeing the film in theaters with unsuspecting friends.

I Got Nailed in The Toolbox Murders (2002, 8 minutes) finds actress Marianne Walter (aka Kelly Nichols) in high spirits reflecting on shooting the infamous bath tub scene followed by her death by nail gun. She openly discusses following this movie with a switch to the adult film industry where she found much success.

Kelly Nichols returns in Flesh and Blood (2017, 31 minutes) and is given more time to tell her story of getting into the industry. She started out as a nude model in men’s magazines and then became a make-up artist. She was a stunt/body double for Jessica Lange in King Kong and then landed this gig. She has some fantastic production stories that you will definitely want to check out. She also talks about the thrill of seeing herself on the poster and watching the film in a theatre where she used to work. She concludes with the tale of how she got into working in adult films and what she does now.

The wonderful film historian David Del Valle recounts his time with Cameron Mitchell in the segment Slashback Memories (2017, 25 minutes). For all the other Mitchell stories that appear on this disc, these are the best. Del Valle shoots down the gossip and reveals a nicer side of the actor’s later years. If you are only vaguely familiar with Mitchell, this is a must see.

Film historian Amanda Reyes delivers a thoughtful and informative analysis of this film in the video essay They Know I Have Been Sad (2021, 19 minutes). She explores the themes of grief and urban isolation and points to the fact that two of the three writers are women. She discusses the cinematography and the effectiveness of hiring a TV director to work on such a fast shoot. This is another solid featurette well worth your time.

The theatrical trailer is paired with a TV ad and two radio spots. The marketing campaign leans into the idea that this is a true story and focuses on the victims.

A poster and still gallery (119 images) presents a collection of international poster art, newspaper ads, lobby cards, publicity stills, behind-the-scenes photos and video artwork.

 

Grades:

Movie: Cover
Cover
Video:
Audio:
Features:
Overall: 4 Star Rating

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Robert Gold
Staff Reviewer
Robert's favorite genres include horror (foreign and domestic), Asian cinema and pornography (foreign and domestic). His ability to seek out and enjoy shot on video (SOV) horror movies is unmatched. His love of films with a budget under $100,000 is unapologetic.
Other articles by this writer

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