Happy Halloween, everybody! Several years ago I started an annual tradition of challenging myself to write about on an all-time horror classic, probing deep into what makes it great and/or meaningful to me at that moment in time. This year I decided to do it a little different and point my flickering flashlight at one of the less respected films by a certified Master of Horror.
In 1974, in Austin, Texas, a former college professor and indie-film tinkerer suddenly made one of the greatest horror movies of all time. THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE was produced independently for $140,000, with unknown local actors, and released through a mafia-owned company founded to distribute DEEP THROAT. But it was great, and it became a long-running hit, and it shot the name ‘TOBE HOOPER’ across a trail of drive-in screens straight into Hollywood. It inspired Wes Craven to make THE HILLS HAVE EYES, Ridley Scott called it the biggest influence on ALIEN, Steven Spielberg liked it so much he recruited Hooper to direct POLTERGEIST. It got Hooper noticed, and within a few years he was in L.A. filming his next Texas-set indie EATEN ALIVE on a Hollywood soundstage with famous actors.
Nearby, aspiring producer Tony Didio read in the trades about the ongoing success of CHAIN SAW as it was re-released each year. Thinking he would like to make some money too, he screened the movie for some writers and told them to make him something like that. The result was THE TOOLBOX MURDERS, which was released in 1978 to scathing reviews and modest profit, became notorious as one of the “Video Nasties,” and at least had a title recognizable to horror fans.
A quarter century later, things were very different. Hooper hadn’t made a well-received movie since the mid-‘80s, and that’s only if you count the once-divisive LIFEFORCE or THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 as well-received. If you don’t you gotta go back to POLTERGEIST, which many try to deny Hooper credit for. In 2003 CHAIN SAW was remade by Michael Bay’s production company, with Hooper’s blessing (and co-producer credit) but little involvement. He’d mainly been directing for quickly forgotten TV shows like The Others, Night Visions and Taken. As far as the popular consciousness was concerned he only existed in the past. He’d disappeared.
Didio had produced half a dozen films since his horror debut, none of them well known. According to Fangoria’s 2004 coverage, Jim Van Bebber (DEADBEAT AT DAWN) approached the producer with a spec script for a TOOLBOX MURDERS sequel (I would’ve liked to see that!), so Didio commissioned him to write a remake too. But when Hooper himself came aboard to direct the remake of his own rip-off, he brought in Jace Anderson & Adam Gierasch (CROCODILE, DERAILED, MOTHER OF TEARS) to write a totally different script. Taking the idea of a guy in a ski mask drilling people in an apartment building and surrounding it with so much more, Hooper didn’t so much remake THE TOOLBOX MURDERS as cut off its title and wear it as a mask.
I first saw Hooper’s version a couple years after it came out, when I wasn’t so hot on what he’d been up to for the past decade and a half. I’d hated SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION and THE MANGLER and found CROCODILE dull, and honestly even a few of the ‘80s ones that I now consider absolute classics I felt more mixed about at the time. I was earlier in my Hooper journey than I realized.
But TOOLBOX was a pleasant surprise. In my 2006 review I wrote enthusiastically about many aspects, though at the end I hedged a little, calling it only “pretty good” and “not that memorable of a horror movie” but “definitely much, much better than your average DTV horror movie.” For years I remembered it fondly, but often saw it (like everything in the last decades of Hooper’s career) derided even by many horror fans as unwatchable garbage.
After Hooper’s death in 2017 I decided to revisit THE MANGLER and, to my surprise, did a complete 180, finding it brilliant and realizing I had to rethink my attitude toward his whole filmography. I wanted other people to see what I was seeing, so I was disappointed a few years later when Eric Vespe and Scott Wampler did a MANGLER episode of The Kingcast and not only trashed the movie, but most of Hooper’s career. After the topic came up again when they were guests on Blank Check I joked with them on Twitter about their “disgusting anti-MANGLER agenda,” and Eric asked if I wanted to defend the movie on a bonus episode.
I knew I had to do it, but I also knew it was a fool’s errand. I’d have to do most of the talking, which is not my greatest talent. And when I re-listened to their original episode I realized that they picked up on most of the things I loved about the movie, like its themes of labor and capitalism, they just didn’t think those things made it good. So I went film-by-film through Hooper’s whole run trying to show how much more interesting the individual pieces are when looked at as part of a body of work. Eric and Scott were nice, but unconvinced. I felt a “please clap” level of defeat at times. My jokes didn’t connect – I pretended not to know Eric’s stance on the who-directed-POLTERGEIST controversy, and claimed they’d told me off air they’d just rewatched THE MANGLER and loved it. I couldn’t tell if they knew I was joking or if they thought I was a lunatic. Months later the episode hadn’t posted, so I assumed they found it unusable, which would be fair. It finally went up on Patreon in September, a couple weeks shy of a year later. I haven’t heard anyone say they listened, but let’s assume everybody love it.
The reason I’m going through all that now is to admit that when we got to TOOLBOX MURDERS and I heard the disdain in their voices, I lost faith in my opinion of it. I described a bizarre scene (a decades-old box of human teeth is found hidden in an apartment wall and a handyman puts one of them in his mouth) as an example of something only Hooper would put in a movie, but I admitted I hadn’t seen it in years, kinda giving in to them, figuring it probly isn’t that good.
Wrong! Now I rewatched it, and not only does it hold up, but it’s much better than the “pretty good” I settled for in that original review. TOOLBOX MURDERS is in fact very good, if unfashionable at the time, being a gory and brashly titled straight-to-video quasi-remake from a filmmaker many regarded as a has-been or one hit wonder. But it was good, and possibly ahead of its time. Without the title font, a little bit of aughts computer stuff and the end credits song (“California [Back To Hell]” by Shithead) you could almost release it as a movie from now.
I read it as Hooper’s love/hate letter to Hollywood, the town that chewed him up and spit him out but couldn’t chase him away. It opens with title cards announcing, “Every year thousands of people come to Hollywood to pursue their dreams. Some succeed. Some move back home… And some just disappear.”
The protagonist Nell (Angela Bettis two years after her horror breakout role MAY) isn’t pursuing Hollywood dreams, she’s an unemployed teacher. But she’s got a neighbor down the hall who’s an actor, one next door who’s a weirdo singer-songwriter, an old man friend downstairs who’s a former contract player. Nell and her medical intern husband Steven (Brent Roam, TREMORS 4: THE LEGEND BEGINS) just moved into the Lusman Arms, a historic former hotel that’s now rundown and screwy enough to make them consider giving up their security deposit.
I was re-sold on the movie as soon as they got the tour from building manager Byron (Greg Travis, SHOWGIRLS), one of those characters whose line deliveries are so perfectly hilarious I can’t tell if it’s funny dialogue or only the brilliant performance that makes it that way. Like the best Hooper movies, this one is populated with fascinating oddballs.
In addition to electrical and plumbing problems, Nell is bothered by the scary arguments she can hear through the walls. She humiliates herself by calling the cops and learning (after an impressively quick response!) that she’s hearing actors rehearse a scene from a crime movie. So now she has reason to question everything she hears, and for nobody to believe her when she swears it’s something serious.
Though we never leave the hellish building itself, there seems to be an appealing neighborhood around it. Nell befriends down-the-hall neighbor Julia (Juliet Landau, NEON CITY) after running into her jogging. She mentions nearby trails, a farmer’s market, and some good book stores. And for what it’s worth I don’t think Byron’s entirely wrong when talking up the “character” and “history” of the building, even if he’s making excuses for its flaws. On her first night Nell has a conversation with Chas (Rance Howard, MR. NO LEGS), the former movie star who’s lived in the building so long he was there before the guy it was named after disappeared. “Wanted it to be a getaway for all the movie stars who shared his proclivities,” he says, without elaborating.
Lusman Arms is obviously one of these Terrible Places that are important to so many horror movies, including CHAIN SAW and POLTERGEIST. Its history includes fatal construction accidents, a “Lunar Cult” led by “some aerospace pioneer trying to fuse science and magic,” and yes, whatever led to the box of teeth Nell discovers when she accidentally cracks a wall while moving furniture.
“Hey, folks, I’m unsettled too,” Byron says to calm them down. “I mean, teeth in the wall equals weird, no question about it. But it’s just part of the building’s charm and character. There’s alot of history here. And you’re part of it!”
(There was also alot of history in the actual building they filmed in – the Ambassador Hotel, site of the legendary Cocoanut Grove nightclub, six Oscar ceremonies, and the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. Racist slumlord Donald Trump bought it to tear down in the ‘90s but luckily he just sold off the beds and silverware and moved on to other scams, so it was still there for Hooper.)
TOOLBOX MURDERS was released at the tail end of an era of J-horror remakes and other PG-13 horror. Fangoria subscribers like myself might’ve been missing the more graphic elements of horror, but movies like this were not welcomed by polite society until, sort of, when SAW came out in the Fall. You’d be full of shit to call this “torture porn” – it’s structured more like a giallo (strange mystery peppered with violent set pieces) – but the murder scenes are extremely gruesome, and happening to characters we like. Some are shocking and upsetting, others go far enough over-the-top to also qualify as fun – I would include when handyman Ned (co-writer Adam Geirasch)’s head is bisected under the eyes, thrown onto the table, and then blinks, as well as when Nell convinces Byron and the police to check on Saffron (Sara Downing, KILLER RATS), they do a walkthrough and find nothing, then they leave and in the same shot the camera tilts up to show her nailgunned to the ceiling:
Almost all of the deleted scenes on the DVD are gorier versions of the deaths. Julie’s meeting with a power drill is particularly horrific. “Tobe wants to take it all the way, which we’ve done,” Didio told Fangoria. “I don’t know if it’ll make it on screen, though. I don’t think that with the R rating, we’ll be able to show everything we’ve done, so whatever we have to do to get an R, we will.” (It seems only right that they put them back into the movie some day, but I would be grateful for any cut on blu-ray. What are they waiting for?)
The original TOOLBOX had a convoluted plot, but it was a straight up serial killer story. Here the killer’s actions are part of a long-in-place, difficult-to-comprehend system. Hooper draws on fears of and fascination with freemasons, cults and occult mumbo jumbo, as well as Hollywood’s history of eccentrics and excess.
These days we have to be extra-wary of all the superstitious members of our society (including your aunts and uncles on Facebook) who truly believe in ludicrous satanic conspiracy bullshit. But the occult backstory of the Lusman Arms is so cool! In the opening scene with the first victim (funny – I mentioned HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES in my original review but I don’t think I noticed that was Sheri Moon Zombie) there’s a shot of strange symbols in some of the tiles at her feet as she enters the building. Later Nell discovers these symbols on each floor and all over the blueprints archived at the Los Angeles Preservation Society. Man, the guy working there (Eric Ladin, CURSED, AMERICAN SNIPER) is excited somebody wants to talk about that building! As he explains it, the symbols stack on top of each other like a deck of cards and work together as one spell. Sorta like I said each of Hooper’s “lesser” movies do.
In one of those details that doesn’t really make sense but is way too cool for it to matter, Nell writes the symbols on her arms (instead of asking for a scrap of paper?) and later finds out by accident that holding her arms up works as a protective spell. But only when she displays them in the right order.
In addition to the magic shit, the building’s “unique architectural designs” and “charming oddities” (as Byron puts it) include missing apartment numbers and slightly off-kilter angles that hide a whole townhouse sized secret section because “our minds don’t work with these sort of spatial anomalies.” The killer is not one of the residents Nell knows – he lives in this hidden space, and has been set off by alterations to the building. “All these changes, these renovations, they can’t be good,” Chas says. “Opening the place up like a patient anesthetized on a table.”
Also, am I crazy or is Hooper trying to imply that radio waves might be part of the “bad juju”? Antennae are very prominent in some of these shots.
According to Fangoria, Bettis’ MAY director Lucky McKee was set to play the killer until his movie THE WOODS got greenlit. But he helped with casting and suggested his cinematographer Steve Yedlin. The following year Yedlin became Rian Johnson’s cinematographer with BRICK, so he is now “Steve Yedlin (STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI, TOOLBOX MURDERS).”
Nell goes exploring through long, dingy hallways with peeling paint, checking the symbols, knocking on walls to find hollow spaces, eventually coming to a window where she can see a roof top with a rocking chair on it. She figures out how to get to the chair and finds a trap door that drops her into the hidden lair of the killer.
A normal whodunit slasher, such as the original TOOLBOX MURDERS, maintains its mystery and then near the end the killer is unmasked and it’s one of the already established (hopefully not too minor) characters, and they explain why they did it and there’s a final battle. If you mistake Hooper’s quasi-remake for following that tradition, there are plenty of suspects: the doorman Luis (Marco Rodriguez, CRY MACHO), who knows when everyone comes in and out and is frequently mentioned as a reason the building is safe; Byron the building manager, who has the master keys and is always putting a positive spin on the bad things that happen; Nell’s husband Steven, who’s always gone and has unpredictable work hours; the perhaps-overly-friendly old man Chas, who says he’s lived there since 1947, which is also when “Black Dahlia” Elizabeth Short, separately mentioned to have lived in the building, was killed. That’s not including the two red herring types, weirdo handyman Ned or Saffron’s abusive skinhead boyfriend (Charlie Paulson, guitarist for the band Goldfinger), who already make the women in the building uncomfortable.
But when we finally meet the killer it’s nobody we’ve seen before, it’s a weird monstrous looking fucker played by stunt coordinator/second unit director Christopher Doyle. The character is called “Coffin Baby” because, as Chas somehow knows, his mother died while he was in the womb and he wasn’t discovered until mourners at the funeral heard his cries from the casket. “He was born of death” so “the separation of life and death is not the same for him.”
That colorful origin story was “all Tobe” according to a brief DVD extra, inspired by a thing he claims used to happen sometimes, but it’s arguably not the main point of the character. I interpret Coffin Baby as a monstrous parody of a vain, aging actor. His skin is stretched and nailed into place like a fucked up facelift, and we see him looking into shards of broken mirror, injecting something into his face. He’s supposed to be very old, but the building’s spell “taps into something that keeps him alive,” thus the murders to stop the renovations, which would break the spell.
I love this touch that in lieu of actual windows he has a light up panel simulating a view of a premiere at the Chinese Theatre:
Combining the murder mystery and the mystical building with the coffin birth thing reminds me of that bugnuts spirit I like in THE EMPTY MAN and MY SOUL TO TAKE, movies that seem to pile multiple horror premises on top of each other. This is not your usual unmasked whodunit killer, it’s more of a Freddy or Jason type monster-slasher whose backstory would normally be uncovered throughout the movie, through passed down legends and perhaps micro fiche research. Here the old guy from the beginning shows up and unloads it on us eight minutes before the credits roll. That’s one of the great things about horror having so many rules and traditions: sometimes violating them feels thrilling. That’s not how you’re supposed to do a story like this, but fuck how you’re supposed to do it!
The battle that happens after the killer and his disgusting living quarters are revealed is a great payoff. There’s a gross part where Nell doesn’t seem to notice the back of her head is touching a big wad of hair hanging off a head on a shelf, and a part where Coffin Baby pops out from under a heap of mummified corpses like it’s a pile of leaves or pillows. Then they all think they killed him so Nell heads to her apartment to pack up and get the fuck out of there, and suddenly that fucker just leaps right through her window to fight her again, and receives another quasi-death with a bit of a Rube Goldberg flair to it. Great stuff. I love this movie now.
Like Coffin Baby himself, Hooper could only maintain the strange existence of his career for so long. The industry was being remodeled around him, and the unlikely circumstances of his origins were impossible to re-create. Not to dismiss Hooper’s subsequent films (MORTUARY, two Masters of Horror episodes and DJINN), but to me TOOLBOX MURDERS is his last great statement, the culmination of most of his obsessions. It has the bizarre masked power tool killer of CHAIN SAW, the thin-walled house of horrors of EATEN ALIVE, the stumbling-across-crazy-shit-beneath-the-floorboards of THE FUNHOUSE, the stringlight-lit subterranean body chamber of CHAINSAW 2, the eccentric neighbors of THE APARTMENT COMPLEX. It definitely has that bizarro spirit of THE MANGLER, but in what I would think would be more digestible form – more structured, more measured in its bursts of feverish insanity, taking its time to get to the more ludicrous concepts, with a nice normal person protagonist to ground us (even though she’s played by a great portrayer of weirdos). And though it certainly gives us a view into Hell, its overall outlook is less bleak. Like that great movie I reviewed recently WATCHER, it has the element of the woman who nobody believes who gets the satisfaction of seeing everyone (her husband, Byron, Luis, the same specific police officers from earlier) verify with their own eyes that she was right all along.
Though some had fought to designate the Ambassador as a historic site, it was purchased by a Los Angeles school district and demolished between 2005 and 2006, eventually replaced with a set of schools named after Robert F. Kennedy. Hopefully that broke the spell and eliminated any undead Tinsel Town coffin babies that might’ve been living behind its spatial anomalies.
We can’t hang on to the past forever, but when it comes to art, there’s always gonna be some weird old forgotten secrets worth examining and decoding. For me the filmography of Tobe Hooper is a spell that gets more and more powerful over time.
Past Halloween programming:
THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2
THE HILLS HAVE EYES
THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE
DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s “A Nightmare On My Street” vs. the Fat Boys’ “Are You Ready For Freddy”