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CampBlood Reviews: Senseless Rants from a Picky Sissy

 

Toolbox Murders Tobe Hooper 2004

Better Call the Plumber...

In a grand gesture of stepping-out-of-character that will no doubt later be brilliantly weaved into my discussion of the film itself, I am going to begin this review with a personal anecdote. First I'll give you a moment to refresh your drinks.

I saw this flick last Thursday at the Fearless Tales Genre Fest, held in Bachelorland itself, San Francisco. Now, knowing very little about the city (I half-expected to be greeted by men in frocks tossing dim sum at me as I deplaned), I had booked my hotel based upon its proximity (or perceived proximity) to the theatre, and had settled on a reasonable yet comfortable inn in a neighborhood of San Fran charmingly referred to as the "Tenderloin". How quaint! A district named after a cut of meat!

Little did I know that the Tenderloin is basically a way-station for hookers, junkies, and Korean businessmen lost on their way to strip clubs. Although the staff was thoroughly charming (including a lovely Tejano woman who could easily have crushed me between her thighs), the place itself was a whiteheaded blemish on the face of the hospitality industry: the room was sparse and hot, there was no food, refreshment, or coffee to be had, and the rickety elevator worked only intermittently and essentially opened onto the street, which was frequented by the entire cast of Panic in Needle Park -- not the kind of thing that puts your mind at ease when you're traveling alone and will be returning late at night. Night -- I imagined what the neighborhood would look like at night and could only summon up the scene in Bonfire of the Vanities when Sherman and Maria accidentally take the exit into the Bronx: cars overturned, garbage bins on fire, prostitutes everywhere. I shuddered, soaked my panties in some Woolite in the sink, and headed out.

After finding my way to the theatre, mingling, and sitting through a screening of Tobe Hooper's Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2 (which is a much more solid picture than I remember), the time came for what has been lauded in the recent press as his big "return to horror filmmaking", Toolbox Murders. After a brief word from Hooper (in which he hastily reminded the audience that his film is not a remake), the lights went down, the picture rolled, and the story began to unfold.

Two hours later (yeah yeah, I'll get to the movie later -- this is my anecdote, remember? Patience! More gin?), I emerged from the theatre a little woozy and, for reasons that will make themselves plain after my description of the film, a little weary of returning to my little pay-by-the-hour slice of hell back in the Brisket District. Fortunately there was fun to be had at an after-party, which I thought would take my mind off my terrifying quarters and help me unwind. So I boarded the Mexican Party Bus (no joke) and headed off.

After a lovely chat with the writers of Toolbox and some fun at the party (Jack Hill, director of Spider Baby and Foxy Brown, boogied down with a belly dancer who could have been his granddaughter -- atta boy!), I decided I was over my anxiety and ready to head back to Meatville. I arrived at the hotel, determined not to get thoroughly creeped out by the elevator, the blind corners, the utter hopelessness of the neighborhood, and somehow made it safely into my room.

Here's where things get a little personal, people, and if you don't like spoilers relating to the humanity of your favorite gay horror webmaster, you may want to skip this paragraph. Because I am only human, folks. And humans shit. As I'd been awake for almost 24 hours due to the time change and my flight, I had to BM pretty badly. So I cleared the toilet of any possible vermin or germs and settled in for a satisfying release.

Until, of course, the lights went out.

Understand, people, that I am in a foreign city, sleep-deprived, a bit tipsy, in a run-down motel in the middle of a fucking war zone, having just seen a movie about a seedy hotel in which people get violently dispatched with various tools, bareass on a toilet. Had I not just done so, I would have lost my shit. I remained perfectly still for at least 15 minutes, jumping at every noise I heard in the pitch-black void that was my little corner of hell, praying for either the lights to come back on or for someone to chop my head off. Finally unable to take it any longer, I finished up my business and as quietly as I could snuck into the cold, stiff-sheeted bed, and cried myself into to a fitful sleep.

Scene.

Tobe Hooper's Toolbox Murders is one strange film. Starting out as what looks to be a fairly standard slasher, the film heaps on the creepy atmosphere (lent mostly by the honest-to-Jesus freaky location) and is able to amp the suspense up to a fairly intense level, which makes things all the more uncomfortable when the story takes a screeching left-hand turn halfway through and becomes a very different, although just as engaging, movie. Clever, intriguing, and surprisingly restrained (despite its very brutal murder scenes), Toolbox is odd enough to stand out from other genre fare and genuinely get under your skin long enough to follow you home.

Toolbox begins with what could be a standard opening-scene kill but becomes much more menacing once our victim-of-the-minute, Sheri Moon, enters the front doors of the Lusman Arms building, a decaying, perpetually damp residence hotel. This place is so old you can almost smell it: the employees are creepy (although fairly nice), the elevator is freakish and foreboding, and the hallways and blind corners are many. Add a noisy storm, and you've got the makings of a grade-A horror movie setting: and as will be further established, this setting is the real star of the film. Sheri, playing an aspiring actress, relaxes for a few moments before being jumped by a figure in a black face mask and bludgeoned to a messy pulp with the business end of a claw hammer. Fittingly, the scene ends with her blood showering the lights of Los Angeles through the window behind her: as the intro title card announced, this movie is about the hopefuls who come to the city to find their dreams... and find something much worse instead.

Enter non-hopefuls Nell and Steven Barrows (May's Angela Bettis and The Shield's Brent Roam), a conservative couple (he a doctor, she a teacher) who have moved into the building out of desperation and are not finding the quarters suitable to their tastes (hmmm... sound familiar...). Nell is left home alone a lot and soon finds herself overreacting to noises she hears through the paper-thin walls, including her neighbors rehearsing for an audition for a cop show (she calls the police), and her other hallmate alternately fighting with or fucking the shit out of her boyfriend. In short, Nell's nerves are a bit frayed.

When Nell finds a boxful of teeth and hair inside their living room wall (Amelie had it easy, eh?), she takes her concerns to the Super, who is -- you guessed it -- anything but. He and the creepy resident repairman (played by co-writer Adam Gierasch) make oblique references to the place being built by some satanist playboy but poo-poo any serious danger.

Meanwhile, people continue to get killed with items from a toolbox that seems to float around the building at random. Here's where Hooper really gets to flex his muscles: the stalk scenes are really, really unnerving. Hooper places his characters in the worst possible positions in every scene and shot, making you constantly aware of their vulnerability. Black, empty doorways and corners are everywhere, and characters have their backs to open rooms most of the time, which after several scenes becomes almost unbearably tense to watch -- he really puts the screws to you. Red herrings pop up constantly, and the real attacks generally come out of nowhere, taking you completely off-guard. Peppering these scenes between slow, quiet scenes of Nell gradually unspooling in the creepy old hotel is quite effective: by the time Nell discovers the "secret" of the building (which I won't reveal here) and the film kicks into overdrive, you're already there waiting for it. The last 30 minutes, while unfortunately dipping into cliche here and there (and a tiny bit of overracting that mars an otherwise excellent performance by Bettis), are mad, grand guignol fun. I was very impressed that the filmmakers took the film in the direction they did and went balls-out with the story and execution: it's a creepy, nasty ride and I think a solid film for pickled bitches like me and regular moviegoers alike.

As for my problems with the film, they're few and standard: the "kindly old sage" character (Chas Rooker, played by Mr. No Legs' Rance Howard) is a little too convenient for the story, especially when he winds up in the middle of the Thunderdome at the end of the film for no apparent reason and spills the beans about the killer in a monologue while the heroes are trying to run for their lives (timing, Rance! Timing!). Some of the scenes are clumsier than others or unnecessary (the obligatory "let's look up the records at City Hall!" scene is a time-killer), and some of the character development is a little half-hearted (Juliet Landau's formerly-fat character is given a lot of time for no real reason; one expects that her body-obsession will lead to something and doesn't). But the way that the film moves from apartment to apartment keeps the pace swift and gives the impression of really entering these people's spaces and lives, a unique accomplishment for a film in a genre that usually takes a bunch of pretty faces and dumps them in the middle of the woods somewhere. Bettis carries a lot of the film on her shoulders, and to be honest, although I really do think her a decent actress, the location shows her up in many scenes. I just feel like I catch her acting sometimes (I felt the same way in May) and although she's much better than most of the other scream queenlets we've got today, I think that she's capable of more and am hard on her in the hopes that we'll see her really make her mark with the right project (you might say I'm giving her the Kate Capshaw Spacecamp treatment).

As for gore, no one will be disappointed: we've got hammer-bashing, nail-gun-shooting, circular-saw-slicing, cable-cutter-chopping, head-drilling fun galore. It's really pretty violent, and the filmmakers promised even more gore in the DVD, which will feature an additional 35 seconds of head-drilling (spicy!) that didn't make the R cut. Corpses pile up like chiffon throw pillows in this house, and the numbers put Rob Zombie to shame. The freakish killer, though I won't reveal too much, is dubbed "Coffin Baby", due to a rather disturbing birth story that is related in the improbable monologue I mentioned earlier.

And I'll admit that I laughed at this -- though not because of the story itself. See, when I was younger my brother referred to me as a Toilet Baby, and this reminded me of that a little too much. Maybe I was wrong to laugh. Maybe the power failure during my moment of need was Toolbox Murders' clever means of revenge. Either way, I'll take having the shit scared out of me by the Toolbox Murders over having the shit scared out of me by the Tenderloin any day.

Rating (out of 5):