The Toolbox Murders 4K UHD Review
4K Ultra HD Release: January 18, 2022
Video: 1.66:1/2160p (HDR/Dolby Vision)/Color
Audio: English Dolby Atmos; English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 1.0
Subtitles: English SDH, French, and Spanish
Run Time: 93:49
Director: Dennis Donnelly
In a quiet apartment complex in Los Angeles, a deranged handyman goes on a killing spree, savagely murdering ‘immoral’ women with the tools of his trade – claw-hammers, screwdrivers, power drills, and a deadly nail gun… (From Blue Underground’s official synopsis)
We tend to think of Dennis Donnelly’s The Toolbox Murders as a product of the post-Friday the 13th (1980) slasher boom: a time in which the studied suspense of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) was replaced by increasingly extreme, grindhouse-friendly sex and gore. In fact, Donnelly’s film was developed in 1977 and released around the same time as Halloween, before Carpenter’s film became the template for ‘80s slashers. The Toolbox Murders fits the rules of early slashers – a masked killer, themed weapons, victims being slaughtered after sexual acts, negligible whodunnit storytelling, et cetera – but it’s really the product of Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and, in turn, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). The use of power tools as murder implements and faux ‘Based on a True Story’ advertising claims are probably the most obvious connections, but the key similarity is the way The Toolbox Murders dwells on the killer’s depressing life story and tortured psychology. And, like Leatherface and Norman Bates, Cameron Mitchell’s Vance Kingsley has a kinship with real-life serial killer Ed Gein, who inspired both Hooper and Hitchcock’s films.
What makes The Toolbox Murders an interesting, if not particularly good proto-slasher progeny is that Donnelly and producer Tony Didio aren’t concerned with matching or even understanding Hooper’s craft – they merely recognized that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was a grimy, visceral assault that freaked people out and made a lot of money. The Toolbox Murders is unapologetic trash that exists to exploit an audience’s discomfort. Like similarly sleazy, low-budget horror films – Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Color Me Blood Red (1965), Marc B. Ray’s Scream Bloody Murder (1973), and Kent Bateman’s Headless Eyes (1971), for example – its lasting impact isn’t really found in its gore or blatant misogyny, but the grotesquery of its characters and environments. While later films, like Abel Ferrara’s The Driller Killer (1979) and Bill Lustig’s Maniac (1980), improved on the model by forcing audiences to really confront their unpleasantness, Donnelly is happy to simply wallow in a loathsome gloom. Unfortunately, this lack of greater ambition, especially in terms of narrative, also leads to some dreadfully dull stretches, leading to The Toolbox Murder’s reputation as a bit of a bore.
Still, it was the gore and accusations of misogyny that has kept The Toolbox Murders in the public consciousness over the decades. The title alone implies that it is the end-all entry in the household hardware murder subgenre, unlike Driller Killer or Terry Lofton & Bill Leslie’s Nail Gun Massacre (1985), where a paltry single implement is used to slaughter people. The implication is more than Donnelly can possibly deliver upon, but the title was enough to put it on the BBFC Director of Public Prosecutions’ radar during the so-called Video Nasties scare in the UK during the 1980s. One scene in particular caught the attention of censors, feminists, and (true story) the audience of the Phil Donahue Show as especially vulgar, misogynistic, and borderline pornographic. In it, a woman masturbates at length in a bathtub, before being chased around her apartment in the nude and dispatched by a nail gun. It’s not the gruesomeness of the sequence – it’s the combination of sexual exploitation and crass violence that still packs a cruel punch. It’s also so effective that the rest of the movie can’t quite live up to its extremes, at least until its transgressive and depressing climax.
The Toolbox Murders was the only theatrically released film that Donnelly ever made, but he wasn’t some disgraced Hollywood outsider. Throughout the ‘70s and well into the ‘90s, he directed some of the most popular television shows of their era. The same year he shot Toolbox Murders, he worked on multiple episodes of Emergency! and, the year it was released, he was putting together episodes of The Amazing Spider-Man, Project U.F.O., and an ABC Weekend Special called Soup and Me that was aimed at children. In an amusing postscript, Tobe Hooper himself ended up directing a loose remake of The Toolbox Murders in 2004, after Marcus Nispel’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) became a surprise hit.
Despite being banned in the UK, The Toolbox Murders was easy enough to find on US VHS via United Home Video and VCI. The UK eventually got a slightly censored, 1.33:1 DVD via Vipco, but Blue Underground’s anamorphic 1.66:1 disc was the better option, at least until they upgraded the SD disc with the first Blu-ray version in 2010. Now, Blue Underground has remastered this gritty little movie for a pristine UHD release. The new 1.85:1, 2160p transfer was taken from a 4K, 16-bit scan of the original uncut negative. This particular film doesn’t lend itself to a perfect 4K image, obviously, but, no matter how dark and dingy it may appear, it was shot on 35mm film, so there is room for improvement.
I am unable to take UHD caps at this time, so I have included caps from the included Blu-ray, which was, according to the box, taken from the same remaster. A quick look at images from the 2010 BD seem to prove that this disc is warmer, slightly more vibrant, and features more dynamic range. That dynamic range improvement is, naturally, more impressive on the UHD with its HDR enhancements (a BD version of the remaster is included for those that want to see the difference HDR makes). Grain texture is natural, though quite thick, creating occasional problems for wide-angle shots, though close-ups exhibit remarkable detail and texture, considering the source. Black levels might look overwhelming on the page, because of JPG compression and, again, the lack of HDR, but it’s pretty effective on the UHD disc. A few scenes have a blurry quality (note the frame of Pamelyn Ferdin tied to the bed), but these appear to be an issue with the original material. This is a best case scenario, in which the visual experience is about as close to an original run theatrical screening as possible. You know, before the footage had been scraped raw by grindhouse projectors.
Blue Underground has included three audio options with this new release. The first is a Dolby Atmos upgrade of the 7.1 remix they designed for the Blu-ray, the second is a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 version of that remix, and the third is the original mono track, presented in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio. I appreciate all of their efforts, but find the remix wildly unnecessary, so I’m going to recommend people stick with the 1.0 mono track. George Deaton’s dissonant and melancholy keyboard & string score is one element that does sound cleaner and nicer on the surround tracks, but the mono original isn’t heavily crunched in this regard and the slight distortion adds character. The occasional stylized aural effect moments (the opening titles, for instance) are effective without the typical echo/reverb issues heard in most mono-to-5.1+ remixes, though, again, I find it personally unnecessary.
Disc One (4K UHD)
Commentary with producer Tony Didio, director of photography Gary Graver, and actress Pamelyn Ferdin – This archive commentary was recorded for the film’s 2002 DVD and found on all subsequent Blue Underground releases. It is a typical, but very well-rounded look back on the production from the people who were there. Ferdin, rather famously, hadn’t actually seen the film until she recorded this commentary.
Commentary with authors Troy Howarth and Nathaniel Thompson – Howarth, the author of Splintered Visions: Lucio Fulci and His Films (Midnight Marquee Press, 2015) and Thompson, owner/reviewer at Mondo Digital, are paired for the umpteenth time on this 2022 exclusive track. The duo also explores the making of Toolbox Murders, but spend most of their time discussing the film’s impact and continuing controversy, its place in slasher cinema history, its violence as a reaction to the serial killer phenomenon of the ‘70s, and, of course, the larger careers of the cast & crew. Even those viewers, who, like me, aren’t very fond of the film itself, the disc is worth it for this combination of commentaries.
TV and radio spots
Disc Two (Blu-ray)
Drill Sergeant (20:17, HD) – Director Dennis Donnelly talks about his career in television, the advantages of shooting feature films, George Deaton’s music, casting and working with the actors, the minor changes made to score an R-rating, producer Didio pushing for more violence, and Toolbox Murders’ minor effect on the rest of his career.
Tools of the Trade (26:47, HD) – Actor Wesley Eure recalls wanting to make Toolbox Murders in order to escape his squeaky clean reputation as a TV actor on family shows and soaps, struggling to “let the character go” when filming concluded, improvisation (including the doll washing scene, which he based on a scene in King Kong ‘76), working alongside other cast members, the rawness of shooting on location, being intimidated by Cameron Mitchell, and negative reactions to the film.
Flesh and Blood (31:16, HD) – In this interview from 88 Films’ 2017 UK Blu-ray, actress Marianne Walter discusses her Kelly Nichols pseudonym, developing her reputation in adult magazines and films, body-doubling Jessica Lang (King Kong ‘76 again!), other minor cult movie roles, the process of being cast and performing in The Toolbox Murders, being comfortable with gore effects (having worked with them in front of and behind the camera), and her lasting career as a porn star.
I Got Nailed in... The Toolbox Murders (8:08, SD) – In this 2003 DVD extra, Walter breaks down aspects of her notorious death scene in the film.
Slashback Memories: David Del Valle Remembers Cameron Mitchell (24:40, HD) – In the second 88 Films extra is an interview with author and friend of cult celebrities everywhere, who celebrates Mitchell’s long career from Hollywood golden boy to Italian transplant and exploitation hero, while also digging into his Toolbox Murders performance.
They Know I Have Been Sad (19:27, HD) – The final brand new extra is a video essay by Made for TV Mayhem podcaster/author of Are You In The House Alone?: A TV Movie Compendium 1964-1999 (Headpress, 2017) Amanda Reyes (who narrates) and filmmaker/writer/programmer Chris O'Neill, who breakdown The Toolbox Murders’ inception and its controversial release and critical drubbing, before offering up a more favorable, though not unrealistic, reevaluation.
TV and radio spots
Poster and still gallery
The images on this page are taken from the remasterd Blue Underground Blu-ray NOT the 4K UHD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.