Friday 22 July 2011

The Toolbox Murders (1978)

Dennis Donnelly's THE TOOLBOX MURDERS isn't really a proper slasher movie.  For one thing it was released before John Carpenter's landmark HALLOWEEN, the film that is most identified as heralding the arrival of the subgenre.  Neither does it have some of the key elements of the slasher film: there are no party preparations, no necking teenagers, and no big reveal at the end.  What it does have is an introductory flashback sequence, amasked killer, nubile female victims and an almost gloating sadism to the death scenes.  Perhaps then it is best regarded as a proto-slasher: essentially an exploitation film that by accident managed to pre-empt the development of a subgenre.

The film's semi-notorious reputation, and the reason it ended up on the UK's video nasty list, is down to the first half an hour which follows the ski-mask clad intruder into several flats and observes him killing the occupants.  Not unlike THE PROWLER (1981), the murder scenes are upsetting not only becuase they are graphic but also because they unflinchingly document the victims' terror and pathetic attempts to resist.  This, you think, might actually be what's it's like to be in that dreadful position.  This is horror, not as a relatively gentle massaging of mankind's deepest fears, but perhaps as a reflection of life itself: nasty, brutish and short.

After such an opening the film, perhaps wisely, lets up; 90 minutes of horror that intense would be almost impossible to watch.  We follow a desultory police investigation into the murderer's kidnapping of a young girl and the more effective efforts of her brother to track her down.  This is TV movie territory: flatly directed, visually drab and with little sense of pace or atmosphere.  What it does have is a remarkably committed performance from Cameron Mitchell, who must have wondered how he ended up starring with pornstar Kelly Nichols (here operating under the pseudonym Marianne Walter) in a very nasty horror movie.

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