Tobe Hooper's 2004’s Toolbox Murders is a pretty loose remake of the 1978 Video Nasty and slasher prototype by Dennis Donnelly. The film was considered a return of sorts to the big time by Hooper fans but if you go into it with those expectations you may be sorely disappointed. If you set your standards a bit lower and realize Hooper can make a decent film that does not have to pale in the shadow of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre you may enjoy the ride a little more. Hooper collaborates with Mortuary (and Crocodile, a film I have never really wanted to see) writers Jace Anderson and Adam Gierasch. The slasher genre is not one that lends itself to much originality and the films are expected to be derivative of themselves and often they get mired down in “clever” references to other more well known films. They either fall into the category of spoof or attempt at something serious and TBM falls into the latter category. Of course there is ultimately something a little comical about all slasher films and TBM can’t escape the genre curse. The idea of a masked, remorseless killer who is all but indestructible and beyond capture (even when he is living in a maze located inside the walls of an apartment complex in Los Angeles) is a little silly after you have seen about a hundred of these things at least. But in the end I enjoyed the film but there are problems to be sure and the film may have been a high point for Hooper and fans in an otherwise waning film career, but in the end it is a just another masked slasher film. And if you accept it as that you will be okay. If you go in with the attitude of “this better be great cos’ Tobe Hooper directed it!” then you will join the legions of viewers who all but hate the film. I, like I said, enjoyed it and felt Hooper did a good enough job and that most slasher film fans will not be disappointed.
Nell and Steven Barrows (Angela Bettis and Brent Roam) move into their room at the Lussman Arms (the now demolished Ambassador Hotel used in hundreds of films over the decades, including David Fincher’s Se7en) and are soon beset upon by a host of strange characters including their landlord, oddball neighbors and a fairly obviously deranged handyman who must have come pretty cheap to the landlord who is always talking of the buildings eccentric charm while avoiding doing necessary repairs. The room is cheap since there are renovations going on, and said renovations have riled up another occupant of the Lussman Arms, a guy we come to know as Coffin Baby and who lives in a rather large complex of rooms hidden inside the walls of the apartments. The complex of rooms that go from floor to floor have gone undetected all this time, and since anybody nicknamed Coffin Baby is going to be a banana or two short of a bushel he has been busy killing of tenants for decades and storing their bodies in various places behind the walls. In fact it seems that in the character of Coffin Baby we have found the actual killer of Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia, whose old room just happens to be Nell and Stevens. There is some strange sub-plot that is not explored too deeply about Coffin Baby being involved in the occult and so explaining, sort of, why the building is adorned with mysterious symbols that provide him with immortality. So there is a supernatural twist to things and I tend to not like supernatural serial killers and slashers. Call me old fashioned. I think in the end a good killer just needs a butcher knife or pair of panty-hose and he is good to go. No need for the Necronomicon.
The killings begin right off the bat and pretty little Mrs. Rob Zombie, Sheri Moon, herself is the first victim and is beaten effectively enough with claw hammer. As the title suggests the murders occur by various construction tools and industrial solvents. The death scenes are fairly gory and some of the freakiest stuff Hooper has set to film. Really, his films have been fairly tame in the death scene departments since The Texas Chainsaw massacre II. The film suffers from not enough mayhem really and too much of Nell unraveling the mystery of disappearing neighbors and the buildings arcane history. The pace is not bad at all but there is not much to pace at times. Hooper delivers in the areas of camerawork, odd characters and, one of his trademarks, creepy psycho dwelling places. Coffin Baby’s digs harken back to the underground maze of the macabre from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II but does not come off, to me anyway, as a reference or homage.
So not the big comeback film Hooper fans had hoped it would be but still a lot better than what was around the corner with Mortuary. The character of Coffin Baby is left unexplained enough to open the door to a sequel, which is now out but without Mr. Hooper at the helm and the trailer I saw online did not make me anxious to track it down. I tend to like Hooper’s work and this is no exception. Not a great film by any stretch if you’re setting the bar too high but better than most slasher type films. I will probably watch it again some day and that is as a good a recommendation as any film can get from me. (NOTE: I finally got a copy of the Coffin Baby sequael and watched about ten minutes of it before turning off in boredom and disgust. Don't waste your time.)