A ski-masked maniac armed with an array of tools is killing wanton women at a sleazy apartment block. After taking his power drill to a blousy alcoholic (Faith McSwain), he smashes his hammer into the skull of a meekly pretty young woman (Marciee Drake) then screwdrivers her sobbing friend (Evelyn Guerrero) for a grisly encore. Spying a sexy girl (Marianne Walter a.k.a. adult film star Kelly Nichols) disco dancing in her underwear, he invades her apartment and is incensed to discover her masturbating in the bathtub. Whereupon he nail-guns the self-pleasuring singleton. The cops are clueless but viewers would have to be either nearsighted or else dumber than dimwit Detective Jamison (Tim Donnelly, the director’s brother) not to recognise the culprit as landlord Vance Kingsley (Cameron Mitchell).
That ski-mask does no better a job concealing Kingsley’s identity than director Dennis Donnelly (a regular television hand making his only feature film). Nevertheless, the film abruptly switches gear when Kingsley kidnaps fifteen year old Laurie Ballard (Pamelyn Ferdin), on account of her passing resemblance to his dead daughter. For you see Kingsley reasons he is doing God’s work, ridding the world of corruption and sin of the kind that claimed his daughter’s life (er, in a car crash? What’s that got to do with sex?). While Kingsley dotes on captive Laurie, feeding her lollipops, ranting on about the world being evil and singing the old gospel standard “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” (badly), her brother Joey (Nicolas Beauvy, from The Cowboys (1972)) teams with the landlord’s creepy nephew Kent Miller (Wesley Eure, from the much-loved kids’ television series Land of the Lost) to crack the case himself. Unfortunately everyone is in for a nasty shock.
When exactly did The Toolbox Murders become a “forgotten classic”? Until recently the general consensus had this a substandard slasher further afflicted by an uncommonly atrocious star turn from genre veteran Cameron Mitchell. Now suddenly horror film websites are full of praise for its unflinching depravity, penetrating psychological insight and even more inexplicably, Mitchell’s slovenly performance. Has the world gone mad? This might have something to do with Tobe Hooper having “re-imagined” (the most dreaded filmmaking phrase of the millennium) The Toolbox Murders as a poorly received 2003 movie.
Supposedly, as the closing caption informs us, the original movie was based on a true story though presumably as loosely as possible. With its masked killer, eerie score and a virginal heroine named Laurie, it initially seems like another Halloween (1978) cash-in, although it was released a few months before the seminal slasher film and producer Tony Didio was actually looking to mimic the success of an earlier exploitation classic: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1973). However, Toolbox Murders joins Maniac (1980) as ranking among the grimiest slasher movies, its sleaziness superseded only by sheer ineptitude. Donnelly’s direction is devoid of pace or suspense. Every killing is accompanied by incongruous country music (and not even good country music!) that somehow numbs the viewer into accepting these onscreen atrocities in matter-of-fact fashion. Meanwhile, Detective Jamison skulks around without getting even remotely close to the truth and does little besides gawk at corpses or ask intrusive questions about victims’ sex lives.
Needless to say Cameron Mitchell is a long way away from Blood and Black Lace (1964) to say nothing of his days on TV western The High Chaparral where he once appeared opposite child star Pamelyn Ferdin. Despite being bound and gagged for most of the movie, Ferdin delivers the only believable performance while Mitchell - who usually brought his A-game to z-movie roles - is far too eccentric to inspire genuine dread. Fans of the film single their scenes out for praise not least for Laurie’s vain attempts to psychologically manipulate Kingsley, but these are tepid at best. About the only twist the film has to offer isn’t especially surprising considering the character in question exhibits no qualms about cleaning bloodstained carpets and reacts hilariously to discovering the dead bathtub girl’s dildo. Still things culminate in as sordid and unpleasant an ending as one could possibly imagine, leaving viewers feeling like, well, a motherless child…