Color, 1978, 93 mins. 53 secs.
Directed by Dennis Donnelly
Starring Cameron Mitchell, Pamlyn Ferdin, Wesley Eure, Nicolas Beauvy, Tim Donnelly, Aneta Corsaut
Blue Underground (UHD, Blu-Ray & DVD) (US R0 4K/HD/NTSC) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9), 88 Films (Blu-ray) (UK R0 HD) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)

By the late e Toolbox Murders1970s, the exploding horror movie market was e Toolbox Murdersbeginning to split into three camps: glossy Hollywood entertainments, straightforward slasher films inspired by Halloween and Black Christmas, and sleazy studies in psychopathic behavior strongly inspired by roughie exploitations films of the previous decade. The line between these three became blurred at times, with critics often confusing the latter two. Often cited as a slasher film due to its notorious opening half hour, The Toolbox Murders then evolves into more of a post-roughie sleaze film in closer company with the likes of Maniac and Don't Answer the Phone whose ancestors include disreputable titles like Forced Entry and the works of Michael and Roberta Findlay. For that reason, this film often confuses horror fans expecting a traditional stalk-and-slash film but instead wind up getting something far more complicated and disturbing instead.

The aforementioned opening act of The Toolbox Murders is a marvel of economical trash filmmaking delivering a nonstop parade of nudity, tacky easy listening music, and one brutal attack after another with a psycho in a Torso-style ski mask making inventive use of his bottomless toolbox. Hammers, chisels, drills, and -- in the most infamous moment of all -- a nail gun applied to bathing, self-pleasuring actress Marianne Walter (aka porn star Kelly Nichols) set the tone for what promises to be a nearly plotless exercise in carnage, only for the story to abruptly serve instead into something resembling a e Toolbox Murderssordid Tennessee Williams e Toolbox Murdersplay relocated to the San Fernando Valley circa '78. At an apartment complex seemingly populated only by alcoholic or promiscuous women, landlord-handyman Vance Kingsley (Mitchell) is perplexed by the fact that young ladies are being brutally murdered two nights in a row. Meanwhile one of the teenage tenants, Laurie (Ferdin), has gone missing, and her blond surfer dude brother Joey (Beauvy) teams up with Vance's twitchy nephew, Kent (Eure), to find out what's really going on.

Since the film makes it plainly obvious who the killer is by barely disguising his face during the murder scenes, TV director Dennis Donnelly must resort to other methods of holding the viewer's attention. Much of this relies on letting the wonderfully hammy Mitchell rip into his role with full gusto, and his big scene with former child actress Ferdin (who had already dipped her toes in more upscale terror with Don Siegel's The Beguiled and The Mephisto Waltz) is quite unlike anything else ever put on film, a jaw-dropping protracted dramatic exercise that comes completely out of left field. Meanwhile the amateur sleuthing by TV actor Eure (best known from Land of the Lost) and The Cowboys' Beauvy results in its own fair share of surreal moments, particularly Eure's reaction to being tossed Walter's used dildo (itself the basis of an unforgettable chapter title on the disc). The openly gay Eure has some pretty strange chemistry with his co-star which gets even more uncomfortable after the plot's big reveal at the e Toolbox Murderse Toolbox Murdersstart of the third act, culminating in a big fiery confrontation that, strangely enough, is completely ignored or forgotten by both the characters and script just moments later. Then there's the finale, oddly the least violent sequence in the film, which also manages to be the most sordid as it pairs up the squeaky-clean Ferdin and Eure for a resolution that will leave any nostalgic '70s TV fans in a state of extreme unease. Of course it all closes with a disclaimer trying to pass off the events as a true story (a la Texas Chainsaw), but no one really bought it. Oh, and this has nothing to do with the 2003 Tobe Hooper remake of the same title, which is another subject altogether.

The very first Blue Underground DVD out of the gate in 2002 along with Shock Waves, this title has been a home video mainstay for years after igniting a storm of controversy upon its successful theatrical release. It became a regular punching bag by the likes of Phil Donahue and the BBFC, though anyone accustomed to current torture-laden horror offerings will probably wonder what all the screaming was about. However, the sheer viciousness and close proximity of the opening murders packs a significant punch and goes way beyond what the MPAA would find remotely acceptable for an R rating today; how it even managed to squeak by with one back in '78 is a complete mystery, though Blue Underground's "Not Rated" on e Toolbox Murdersthe packaging indicates e Toolbox Murderssomething might have been going on behind the scenes. In any case, their DVD presentation was quite fine for the time and paved the way for their Blu-ray upgrade in 2010, a stellar presentation featuring one of the best catalog horror transfers around at the time. While the commercial elements of The Toolbox Murders are all rendered with startling clarity here, the film is also much more enjoyable in HD for its most aesthetic quality as a picture-perfect portrait of '70s Valley life. Many apartments around Burbank still look the same (yes, even down to the interiors and wall heaters), but the presentation here is a nonstop cavalcade of vintage carpeting, wall ornamentation, neon-saturated bars, and lo-tech garages. The immaculate image quality might indicate something that was shot yesterday, but the production design clearly gives the game away. Top marks all around. The audio aspect isn't quite as impressive given the very limited nature of the original sound recording (Eure and Beauvy tend to mumble or slur some of their lines, so prepare to flip on those optional English, Spanish or French subtitles from time to time), but the music sounds great and all the screaming comes through loud and clear. The center-heavy DTS-HD 7.1 mix offers a bit of minor ambient support to the more densely-mixed portions, but it really isn't all that different from the original mono mix (with a third 5.1 option e Toolbox Murderscoming e Toolbox Murderssomewhere in between). Apart from ditching the DVD's still gallery, the Blu-ray carries over all the extras including an entertaining commentary track with a very game Ferdin, late cinematographer Gary Graver (who shot hundreds of beloved drive-in films when he wasn't moonlighting as an adult film director), and producer Tony DiDio, all of whom look back fondly on the film and talk about their various showbiz experiences while occasionally reacting hysterically to the feature at hand. Walter/Nichols appears for the on-camera featurette, "I Got Nailed in The Toolbox Murders," in which she talks in depth about her famous demise and one of its most famous fans as well as her subsequent careers in showbiz. The disc rounds out with the theatrical trailer, a particularly ominous TV spot, and radio spots.

A different, cropped 1.78:1 scan was later used in 2017 for a U.K. Blu-ray from 88 Films advertised as being from "positive elements," but looked visibly weaker with hotter contrast and a dupier appearance. At least it did feature a new audio commentary by The Hysteria Continues' Justin Kerswell chatting with Calum Waddell, plus David Del Valle revisiting his memories of having Cameron Mitchell on his show in "Slashback Memories" (24m33s) and a different interview with Nichols, "Flesh and Blood" (31m10s).

However, the version to beat is Blue Underground's revisit in 2022 as a two-disc UHD and Blu-ray combo, with the UHD really taking advantage of the format with Dolby Vision HDR delivering very deep, rich black levels that particularly make an impact during that first half hour. Colors look more robust and e Toolbox Murdersdynamic here throughout as well, and in addition to the 5.1 and 1.0 mono mixes, there's a new Dolby Atmos track that's still fairly center-centric for the most part but e Toolbox Murdersdelivers some fun separation effects at times. That's especially evident during the exterior scenes when you get whooshing ambient car sounds all around and above, giving a nice spatial effect. English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles are provided, while the audio commentary is ported over; there's also a new commentary featuring Troy Howarth and this writer, which can't be assessed here (obviously) but will hopefully prove entertaining and informative. Both discs also sport the trailer, TV spot, and radio spots as well, while the Blu-ray ports over "I Got Nailed..." and adds the second "Flesh and Blood" and "Slashback Memories" from the 88 Films release. However, the Blu-ray also features some substantial new goodies as well starting with "Drill Sergeant" (20m17s), which Donnelly talking about this film pulled together on a very low budget compared to his TV assignments, the approach of composer George Deaton (who pops up in a cameo in the film) and his joyful response to the score, his memories of Gary Graver, the execution of that final crane shot, his positive experience with Mitchell, his love of tools, and the casting of his brother Tim. In "Tools of the Trade" (26m47s), Eure cheerfully remembers jumping at the chance to do a horror role while working on Days of Our Lives, the little foreshadowing touches he brought to his character, the recovery he had to go through jumping back to TV, and the inspiration he took from 1976's King Kong for his favorite scene. The video essay "They Know I Have Been Sad" (19m27s) by Amanda Reyes (who narrates) and Chris O'Neill takes a perceptive look at the film contrasting its hostile critical reception with its weirdly resonant look at modern urban isolation and loneliness within its unusual triptych structure. Also included is a new and greatly expanded gallery of 118 posters and stills.

2022 Blu-ray

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2010 Blu-ray

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Updated review on January 13, 2022.