Starring: Cameron Mitchell, Pamelyn Ferdin, Nicolas Beauvy, Wesley Eure
Director: Dennis Donnelly
Story: A maniac in a ski mask uses tools to kill “sinful” women living in an
The original version of The Toolbox Murders is a perfect example of what a
slasher flick should be. Made in 1978, this film does everything it needs to do
and does it very well. It has a straightforward plot, good acting, and nuanced
visual storytelling. They truly don’t make them like this any more. And
though you hear that phrase often, this time there is actual evidence. Tobe
Hooper’s remake—oops, I think “reimagining” is the term they use in
Hollywood these days—proves this point. Hooper filled his version of this tale
with all sorts of confusing paranormal mumbo jumbo about a cursed
apartment building. But the original version of The Toolbox Murders is about
a deranged religious fanatic using tools from his toolbox to kill women. That’s
pretty much it. Nothing fancy about it, and yet it’s a much better film.
Repeat after me, Hollywood: Less is more. The toolbox murderer wears a ski
mask and is terrorizing an apartment complex in Los Angeles. Any woman
living there whom he deems immoral ends up on the wrong end of a tool.
This guy has a pretty broad definition of immoral. From drinking too much to
dancing half naked in front of an open window, it doesn't take much to incur
this man’s wrath. Director Dennis Donnelly sets the film up quickly. In the
first fifteen minutes alone, there are the opening credits, a little psychological
foreshadowing, and three kills (the weapons are drill, hammer, and
screwdriver for those keeping score at home). The main cast is efficiently
introduced amid the scenes of carnage. There’s Vance Kingsley, owner of the
apartment complex; Laurie Ballard, requisite good girl; Joey Ballard, Laurie’s
good-guy brother; and Kent Kingsley, Vance Kingsley’s nephew and friend of
Joey. Film veteran Cameron Mitchell plays “Uncle” Vance quite effectively.
Uncle Vance’s sainted young daughter, Kathy, was killed in a car wreck and it
really took a toll on his sanity.
Now, whenever Vance sees sinful women, he feels the need to remove them
from the world—permanently. The murders aren't as graphic as in the films of
today, but they’re just as, if not more, effective. Actually, there’s a lot more
nudity than blood in this film, which is common of films of the ‘70s. It helps
remind one that today’s society is much more disturbed by a bare breast
than by a brutal, graphic scene of violence. In fact, the most effective kill
scene in The Toolbox Murders would probably never make it to the screen
today. The killer breaks into the apartment of a woman (‘70s porn actress
Kelly Nichols, appearing here as Marianne Walter) and spies her masturbating
in her bathtub. She soon notices him and is chased, nude, through her
apartment before Vance corners her in the bedroom and brutally kills her.
More time is spent showing her naked body in the tub than in the blood.
The virginal Laurie, played by Pamelyn Ferdin (forever famous as being the
original voice of Lucy in the Charlie Brown holiday specials) catches Vance’s
attention and is kidnapped as a replacement for his dead daughter. Since the
police seem concerned but rather dense, Laurie’s brother, Joey, aided by
Kent, decides to find her. It’s not long before Kent realizes his uncle’s part of
the mystery. Though I've probably revealed more than I should, don’t worry,
there are more twists to be enjoyed before The Toolbox Murders ends.
Overall, the acting is fine. Kelly Nichols is very good in her death scene. Both
clothed and unclothed, Nichols is a very compelling actress. Pam Ferdin and
Cameron Mitchell share a scene near the end in which both performers show
off their chops. It’s clear why Ferdin was one of the top child actors of the
period, and though Mitchell was slumming toward the end of his long career,
he is quite effective as a religious man driven mad from grief.
A product of the ‘70s, The Toolbox Murders feels a little like a “movie of the
week” or an episode of “The Rockford Files,” but with more explicit sex and
violence. Even so, it’s a very well crafted flick. Good use is made of music of
the time, and the editing and shot choices tell the story well. The film’s last
scenes, those of the final girl, are among the most effective versions of this
plot device I've seen—two shots, no dialogue, but extreme emotional impact.
Some of our finest, most influential films (horror and otherwise) were made in
the ‘70s. The Toolbox Murders remains a forgotten gem among a wealth of
Runtime: 95 minutes
Studio: Tony DiDio
Review done by: Theron Neel
Online since: February 20th, 2006