Defending so-called misogynistic horror films can sometimes prove difficult. Take, for example, the 1978 pseudo-classic The Toolbox Murders, one of the most vilified exploitation films ever made. I remember being on vacation as a child and visiting a grotty gas station/convenience store. Behind a shower curtain was a rack of VHS tapes, including a copy of said movie on the bottom shelf. Even I, already a horror movie veteran by this point, wanted no part of a film with such a cover; Cameron Mitchell, wearing a ski mask and holding a nail gun, standing over a naked woman cowering in fear. Surely this movie “crossed the line” and was not fit for sane, moral human beings.
When I was finally all grown up and no longer sane or moral, I decided to give it a watch. Lo and behold, The Toolbox Murders has graduated from VHS to not only DVD but Blu-ray. Any man, woman, or child can order a copy on Amazon, wait at the doorstep with bated breath for it to arrive and then throw it in their DVD player. They can even use the chapter menu to skip directly to any scenes of violence against women and replay them at will, even using freeze frame and slow-mo during the best bits. It may prove difficult to defend this as anything but “pornography” of the vilest order, but I’ll give it a shot. Take, for example, the titles for the chapter listings:
1. PROGRAM START/MAIN TITLES
Not too bad. Pretty straightforward.
2. DRILLING FOR BLOOD
I’m not a doctor, but this sounds like someone is attempting to donate blood. Good for him/her.
3. CLAW-HAMMER HEMORRHAGE
Always a potential hazard when hammering unsafely, and possibly a necessary plot point.
4. SCREWED TO DEATH
Well, cardiac health is a must. Otherwise, any strenuous activity could prove deadly.
5. BLOODY MESS
“Ah, bloody hell! I’ve spilled the milk! Bullocks!” Those crazy Brits. Ha ha.
6. THE GOOD GIRL AND THE TOPLESS TRAMP
Well, if you insist on walking around naked everywhere, and you’re not in Rio, you should probably expect these types of character insinuations. Also, hanging around a “good girl” is probably gonna make it stand out more, from a contrast standpoint.
7. NAILS AND NIPPLES
I’m assuming male nipples here. Probably got hot, hammerin’ away, and took his shirt off. Nothing strange about that.
8. HANDS OF A MANIAC
Well, it comes as no unfortunate surprise that maniacs tend to have hands. Otherwise they would just yell at people and wave their stumps around.
Routine forensic investigative procedure. Nothing to see here.
Looks like the “blood drilling” got a bit messy. Well, I’m sure it’s all for a good cause.
11. DEAD GIRL’S DILDO
I’m assuming typo here. Dead girls don’t have dildos. That makes no sense at all. Maybe they meant “Bilbo”. I dunno.
12. UNCLE PSYCHO
Well, I think all of us have an uncle who’s a little “bonkers” or what have you.
13. MADMAN’S RANT
I’m guessing the uncle here. We’re all entitled to our opinions. God knows we still have the first amendment…for now.
14. LOVING TORMENT
Hmmm…interesting. This sounds like one of those gothic romance deals, like from a novel that the lesser Bronte sister might write (sorry, I keep forgetting wihich one is the lesser Bronte).
15. WORKING LATE
I smell time and a half bitches! Oh, and by “bitches”, I mean other men I don’t respect. Sorry.
16. BOUND AND GAGGED
Maybe it’s a nice little kidnap plot. A crime is a foot! Right-e-o!
17. JOEY’S THEORY
Well…at least he’s applying himself.
18. FIERY DEATH
Ahhh...probably one of those flaming monk deals; a protest against some grave injustice. An honorable cause I’m sure, but me thinks the approach may be a bit overzealous. Just my personal opinion. I’ll shut up now.
19. INCEST AND MURDER
20. THE BLOOD-SOAKED DOLL
21. VIRGIN RAPE
Well, at this point, not only has my defense crumbled, but frankly, I’m starting to feel uncomfortable. I mean, not only is there a murder being committed, but there’s some incest involved, and it sounds like the girl on the receiving end is the aforementioned “doll”. Not to mention, she’s soaked in blood; probably her own.
And Good lord…a virgin rape?!? I guess it’s time to finish her off with some full on rape, since the mild incestuous behavior from earlier doesn’t technically count as her “first time”. Oh, while she’s soaked in blood. Jesus H. Christ. And if that wasn’t enough, someone pulls out a pair scissors and apparently goes to town, in some fashion I happily report I can’t even picture. And then, immediately after…
23. END CREDITS
So, this “doll” sees someone murdered, gets molested by a relative (I bet it was that crazy uncle…I knew I shouldn’t have taken him with a grain of salt), and, in the process, somehow gets completely soaked in blood. If that wasn’t enough, she gets some full on virgin rape before being polished off with a pair of scissors. The movie then immediately cuts to the end credits.
Why not 23. CRAZY UNCLE GETS CAUGHT AND SENTENCED TO JAIL FOR ALL OF ETERNITY, followed by 24. RAPE VICTIM SURVIVES HORRIFIC ORDEAL AND WRITES BEST SELLER? Nope. Polish her off with a pair of scissors, cut directly to the end credits, and you can go fuck yourself for all we care. Here’s a list of everyone involved in the film, and now you’re gonna have to sit through the entire thing. So now you know the name of the foley artist. Don’t fucking care. You heard me buddy.
All class, folks.
Well, misogynistic or not, this movie is fucking awesome, at least for two-thirds of its run time. The first act consists of Cameron Mitchell in a ski mask invading women’s apartments and brutally murdering them with tools, whether or not they are wearing clothes. After all, the best time to murder a woman in an exploitation movie is when she is getting dressed or taking a shower (or masturbating while taking a bath in the case of porn star Kelly Nichols).
The rest of the plot involves Cameron kidnapping a teenage girl (Pamelyn Ferdin, now a big time animal rights activist) and keeping her tied up, pretending that she is his dead daughter. This leads to several overlong but no less amazing scenes where Cameron rants to her about sin and the bible and god knows what while sucking on a lollipop, even singing “Motherless Child” in ultra sweaty, vaguely Shatner-esque fashion. The important thing is that it gives Cameron a perfectly logical motive for emptying his nail gun into a naked porn star. I hate it in movies when naked porn stars are killed gratuitously, completely absent of plot.
Unfortunately, much of the rest of the movie involves the lifeless investigation of the murders by a detective and the investigation of the kidnapping by Pamelyn’s brother and his vaguely creepy friend (Wesley Eure), since said detective isn’t too interested in trying to find a teenage girl who might have rode off with her boyfriend in his Camaro or whatever. Now, Wesley’s vague creepiness works for the role, no doubt, but I find him vaguely creepy even in roles where he isn’t supposed to be, and I can’t exactly put my finger on it. He is most famous as the star of Land of the Lost, but he was also the star of the family robot dog movie C.H.O.M.P.S. Wesley has a manner that suggest 70’s wholesomeness gone slightly but disturbingly askew, like the teenager living next door to the Brady Bunch who dabbles in meth (to the extent that one can be a “dabbler” when it comes to meth). Maybe I’m reading something into him that isn’t actually there. You be the judge.
While the entire middle of the film lacks tits and blood (and the combination of the two), at least it’s a prime example of late 70’s/early 80’s L.A. interior apartment style, what with those stucco walls and yellow shag carpets and hideous green curtains. I guess that doesn’t sound like much of a plus, but maybe seeing that stuff spark a hint of nostalgia within my cold black heart. Also, better tacky than boring, I guess.
The Toolbox Murders sort of reminds me of the next year’s When a Stranger Calls in terms of its general structure; a proto/psuedo slasher with slam bang first and third act but with seemingly out of place investigative bits in the middle. While When a Stranger Calls is more of the horror suspense variety, The Toolbox Murders is a rare combination of crass exploitation, utter boredom, and truly disturbing horror. If that sounds like a mixed bag, don’t worry folks; thanks to the magic of modern technology, you can fast forward through the boring parts and get to the good stuff. To think that some people believe that rapid advances in technology are bad for civilization. Assholes.
P.S. That's review number three in the Lazy Baker Halloween Horror Countdown! Eight more to go! Jesus, I gotta stop dicking around and stay on pace.