Monday, November 4, 2013

The Remake Comparison Project - A Surrealistic Summer for Pretty Ladies

Cody and Priscilla take a look at the 1978 and 2004 versions of The Toolbox Murders for their Remake Comparison Project.


For this month's Remake Comparison article, Cody picked the Toolbox Murders movies because he knew I recently watched the 1978 original for the first time and that I'm a fan of Tobe Hooper, who directed the 2004 remake. Truth is, I had never even heard about the original until after I watched the remake, and it wasn't until a couple months ago that I finally had the chance to check it out.

Inspired by the sensational success of Tobe Hooper's 1974 classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, producer Tony DiDio arranged to have a private screening of that film for a director named Dennis Donnelly and screenwriters Ann Kindberg and Robert Easter. Before the movie began, DiDio told the creative folks he had gathered together that he wanted them to come up with an idea for a movie that could appeal to the same audience that had turned out for TCM. The movie began, and DiDio soon walked out. He liked the marketability of these sorts of movies, not the movies themselves.

The idea for The Toolbox Murders was crafted when Donnelly, Kindberg, and Easter put their heads together after the private screening they had on that day in 1977. Kindberg and Easter, along with Neva Friedenn (with whom Easter wrote the '77 movie Supervan and would go on to write several action flicks starring the likes of Cynthia Rothrock and Don "The Dragon" Wilson with, among others), wrote up a screenplay and Donnelly took his place behind the camera to bring it to life on a budget of $165,000, plus DiDio's $30,000 producer's fee.

The resulting film begins with an unseen, black glove wearing driver making his way through the streets of Los Angeles, listening to fire and brimstone religious programming on the radio while thinking back on a car crash that occurred on the route he's taking... a young girl's lifeless body falling from the passenger door of the wrecked car... her being pronounced dead at the scene... her funeral. Brief glimpses of these images are the only information we're given at this point. Viewers who begin to suspect the driver is mentally disturbed will soon be proven right.

The man arrives at an apartment complex and it looks like he's there for some sort of repair, even though it's nighttime, as he pulls a toolbox from the trunk and makes his way into an apartment. From the reaction of the woman who lives there, he's supposed to be there, he is the apartment complex handyman and she called him, the only issue is that it's taken him three days to come fix whatever problem she has. Well, the handyman is there now, but he still doesn't fix her problem. Without saying anything he gets a drill out of the box and goes after her. Even though she's clearly intoxicated, she fights him for a little bit, but it doesn't do any good. He kills her.

He then dons a ski mask, which he pulls on at a crooked angle at first, and goes on to kill more women living in the complex, carrying his blood-splattered toolbox from room to room and killing his victims with items from within.

Victim number two is a woman named Debbie, who is getting ready to take a shower when we're first introduced to her, but put any expectations of a Psycho-esque shower murder out of your mind. Instead she just ends up gets her white see-through shirt (with no bra) wet, which makes her change her mind and skip the shower for some reason, she just changes clothes. The killer gets into her apartment, with his mask on correctly by now, attacks her, then carries her outside and kills her with a hammer before bringing her back into the apartment. Debbie's friend Maria is the next to die and she could probably have escaped, because the killer takes his time looking for another tool to use, but she stays on the ground crying, waiting for her demise... and it surely comes.

The fourth victim is clearly into herself, as we can tell because she likes dancing in her underwear in front of the window, almost as if she wants people to see her. The killer certainly did and he also catches her doing "unnatural" things to herself in a bubble bath.

According to the killer, masturbating isn't simply unnatural, it is in fact "Unnatural, unnatural, unnatural, unnatural, unnatural!"

A country duet about a love affair with a "Pretty Lady" plays on the radio throughout the attack on the exhibitionist/bathtub onanist, and we think this "Pretty Lady" might have a shot because she tries to trick the killer and fights back for a while. But he eventually gets her with a nailgun in the film's most popular death scene.

Actress Marianne Walter was clearly comfortable with her body, as she's fully nude throughout the attack and murder sequence, and would go on to prove that even moreso when she embarked on a career in porn a few years later under the name Kelly Nichols.

With four bloody murders and a lot of female flesh being displayed, the first 30 minutes of The Toolbox Murders is a stalk and slash exploitation festival and the killer is having as much fun as fans of this sort of movie will have while watching it, humming happily as he goes about his bloody, brutal business.

During a brief interlude between killings, we're introduced to the characters who will become very important after the film switches gears around the 30 minute mark - very prolific actor Cameron Mitchell (239 credits to his name) as Vance Kingsley, owner of the apartment buildings and prime suspect given how the first victim reacted to the sight of the killer - if it's not him, it has to be former Land of the Lost star Wesley Eure as Vance's nephew/employee Kent - and Pamelyn Ferdin as apartment resident Laurie Ballard, a bubbly and playful teenage girl who has taken on the responsibility of taking care of herself and her brother Joey (Nicolas Beauvy), picking up the slack from her overworked mother.

We know Laurie is cool because she's writing a paper about Brazil - for school or not. Even though she beat Halloween's Laurie Strode to the screen by several months, Ferdin's Laurie fits the mold of the smart and responsible teenage slasher heroine, so of course she draws the killer's attention, but in a different way than his average victims. He kills to rid the world of what he considers to be evil people, but Laurie is a good girl, so she doesn't get the toolbox treatment. The killer abducts her, taking her home with him, dressing her up and tying her to a bed in a room that used to belong to another young girl...

Once Laurie is kidnapped, the toolbox stalk and slash sequences go out the window and the movie begins to focus on the search for the missing girl, both the official investigation being conducted by police and the sleuthing that her brother Joey does. He is set on finding her and goes to check the first victim's apartment, finding that Kent Kingsley is there to clean up the place. They know each other from school and they start to bond. Joey even tells him that Laurie had a crush on him. Everytime it's mentioned that the victims were killed with tools, Kent acts like he might know something, and soon after that we find out that it's his uncle Vance doing the killing.

Vance Kingsley is keeping Laurie because she reminds him of his daughter Cathy, the girl who died in the traumatic car crash at the beginning. He is obviously mad, deranged, because he's convinced that humanity is bad and he's doing the right thing by getting rid of the sinners. He's so crazy that he believes Laurie is his lost, beloved Cathy.

Kent goes to his uncle's house and looks through Cathy's bedroom window, where Laurie is being kept. Did he see her or not? And if he did, why didn't he do or say something to Joey or someone right away? It's because he's also messed up about Cathy's death. He was the one driving the car and she was more than his cousin... she was his lover. The Kingsley family is kind of dysfunctional.

Joey is more successful with his investigation than the police are with theirs and begins to suspect Vance, going to his house and finding the bloody tools. Kent goes after him and sets him on fire, because in his mind, he's protecting his family. He then confronts his uncle, and tells him about his relationship with Cathy. They start fighting, and Laurie is left alone hoping Kent will come rescue her. He kills his uncle, and comes back for Laurie, but his plans for her aren't what she hoped for, unfortunately.

Some viewers may be disappointed by how the movie changes after the first 30 minutes and becomes more about the story and characters, but for me it remained interesting throughout. The remaining hour of the film after the abduction is really an acting showcase for Cameron Mitchell and Pamelyn Ferdin and they both deliver very strong, believable performances, doing a fantastic job of carrying the movie on their shoulders in the absence of bloodshed and nudity.

The Toolbox Murders may not rank among the classics like the movie it was inspired by does, but it is an enjoyable, twisted, sleazy murder mystery, sort of an American exploitation drive-in take on a giallo. If this movie had an Italian pedigree, I could see it being much more well beloved than it is, but as it stands it is an enduring cult favorite.

A few things about the movie came off as pretty sleazy to me, especially at the beginning, like victims number 2 and 4, the country songs and the affair between the cousins. Also, the apartment complex seemed to mostly have women living alone, which might have been done on purpose by Vance since he picked who lived there. But after a while, it changes, and the movie, including the score, becomes more somber and suspenseful, a fact that is accentuated when we find out it was based on true events. The acting is pretty decent, with some creepy performances. The drill through the arm effect looks very nice, and even though the movie is not excellent, it is pretty good and worth checking out.


The 2004 remake of The Toolbox Murders has a similar backstory to the making of the first film, except this time the inspiring movie was not The Texas Chainsaw Massacre but, of course, 1978's The Toolbox Murders. And yet, much like producer Tony DiDio's personal feelings toward TCM, remake producers Jacqueline Quella and Terence Potter were not fans of The Toolbox Murders. In fact, they never even watched the whole movie, turning it off partway through and blasting it as horrible and misogynistic. But, attracted to the property due to its success and the enduring popularity of its title, and interested in expanding on the basic concept, they bought the remake rights and partnered with DiDio (who had previously been developing a remake on his own with Ohio-based independent filmmaker Jim Van Bebber, of Deadbeat at Dawn and The Manson Family fame) to make the new version.

Coincidentally or not, the man responsible for the film that made way for the making of The Toolbox Murders ended up being hired to bring this new take on the story to life: Toolbox Murders '04 was directed by Texas Chainsaw Massacre's Tobe Hooper, working from a screenplay by husband and wife writing team Adam Gierasch and Jace Anderson.

The setting for the remake is the Lusman Arms, an apartment building in Hollywood that was once meant to be a popular place but is now a rundown haven for aspiring artists hoping for their big break. The Lusman has a storied history of celebrity and tragedy, one of its apartments was even once home to Elizabeth Short, better known as the Black Dahlia murder victim. The filming location had quite a history itself - the movie was shot in Hollywood's Ambassador Hotel, which housed a couple editions of the Academy Awards ceremony, was frequented by many golden age celebrities, and yes, was the building in which Robert Kennedy was assassinated.

The movie begins on a dark and rainy night, and the first character we meet is an aspiring actress named Daisy, played by Rob Zombie's wife and muse Sheri Moon, who is juggling a waitressing dayjob with attempts to get her acting dreams off the ground. After getting her credit card declined at the newstand across the street from the Lusman and hearing that an employee working on renovations in the apartment building was fatally injured in an accident - after which the contractor quit and the construction crew cleared out of the building before the ambulance even arrived - Daisy takes a rickety elevator up to her apartment. She starts to disrobe, getting comfortable for the night... but doesn't even get to finish her glass of wine before she's attacked by a man wearing a trenchcoat and a balaclava, who proceeds to beat her to death with a claw hammer. A new spate of toolbox murders has begun.

The story centers on married couple Nell and Steven, who have just moved into their Lusman Arms apartment on this night of accidents and murder, taking advantage of the "$900 deposit, 60 days free rent" renovation special. Nell senses from the very beginning that something is wrong with the place, and on top of that the apartment has a lot of problems, none of which the building manager has any interest in hearing about. Even with loud, exotic neighbors and a lot of inconveniences, Nell tries to make it work because she's a teacher looking for a job, and Steven is in his final days of medical school. It's clear that she's not happy with the situation, and she also has her own demons to battle, including the fact that she recently lost her father.

Some of the neighbors are Saffron, who gets into heated discussions with her boyfriend frequently and is the writer of such songs as the dopey "Surrealistic Summer"; Julia, who's lost a lot of weight and is all about healthy eating and exercising; Austin, a horny teenager who has somehow hacked into Julia's webcam and spies on her; and Chas, an older gentleman who's been living there since 1947 and tells Nell a little bit of the place's history, which includes the disappearance of original owner Jack Lusman and the deaths of several construction workers. The building also has doorman Luis and handyman Ned.

Most of the Lusman inhabitants we see meet their end at the hands of a killer who uses various tools to get the job done, including a drill, the aforementioned claw hammer and, necessary given how popular its use was in the original film, a nailgun.

For serenading the audience with "Surrealistic Summer", Saffron receives a nail in the voicebox.

Ned's duties in the building not only require that he have a toolbox, making him the prime suspect, but his creepy demeanor and the fact that he seems to have stalked Julia at some point makes us wonder even more if he might be the one offing people.

Nell is usually by herself since Steven works long shifts at the hospital, and she becomes friends with Julia. They make plans to run together, and when Julia fails to show up the next morning, Nell starts suspecting something might have happened to her, as she's already bothered by the "charming" oddities of the building, including a small box with teeth she found concealed in a wall...

A box she discovers because she's the worst furniture mover ever, just slamming the trunk she's sliding across the floor directly into the wall and knocking a hole in it.

Makes me wonder how the building's been standing there for so long. What should have resulted in a dent in the wall is more like a crater. At least the foundation seems to be in better shape.

After a brief encounter with Chas, during which he cryptically tells her that "the walls listen" and worries that the renovations to the building could release something bad from within it, Nell decides to dig deeper into the Lusman mysteries. She gets a blueprint of the building and finds out that the strange symbols that are all over the place aren't just there for design purposes, they're some sort of black magic, put there by the man who built it. He was part of a cult, and was big on the occult.

She can't count on the police because she had already called them twice before about noise disturbances (one of which was a murder, but there was no evidence) and they wouldn't believe her. So she goes looking for clues and ends up finding hidden rooms and spaces... and the toolbox killer. While Nell is trapped in the killer's five-story lair, which is full of tools and decades of corpses, Austin discovers that he has webcam footage of Julia's murder and teams with Steven to find Nell before it's too late.

The killer, who's called Coffin Baby, turns out to be an evil force who feeds off of the black magic in the building. The renovations have disturbed that and that's why the murders were happening. But there are a lot of skeletons and dead bodies all over the secret rooms, so why did the previous murders happen? We're left uncertain when it comes to a few things. And when we think the killer is finally dead... he isn't.

The Toolbox remake is very good. The score by Joseph Conlan is solid, the building is eerie looking, the death scenes are great and extremely brutal. They have the perfect amount of gore and well done makeup effects. The final chase sequence is so powerful, I always get into it.

The acting and directing are probably the best aspects of the movie. Angela Bettis, who plays Nell, has this creepiness about her, it's very believable, and Tobe Hooper brings so much to the table with his unique, gloomy tone.

The cast is very good, and I especially enjoyed the performance of Rance Howard as the likeable and troubled Chas.

The remake, while probably relatively low budget itself, obviously had a substantially higher budget than the original movie. That's clear from the look of the film, as Hooper and cinematographer Steve Yedlin (who would go on to shoot Rian Johnson's Brick, The Brothers Bloom, and Looper, among other movies) captured a very darkly stylish look for it.

It is a better made movie overall. Although, it's a good thing that they didn't have a "Pretty Lady" cover in the remake, because while the original had mostly very good looking women, the same just can't be said about this one. Most of the ladies aren't very attractive and look a little malnourished.

Some things are kind of left up in the air. We don't know exactly how or why the killer lives there or why Chas kept his secret for all those years, allowing for more people to get murdered. I wish they would have explained more about the whole occultism side of things and how it affected the killer. The symbols keep him strong, but when he sees them written all over Nell's arms, a remnant of her investigation, they stop him from attacking her. There are some mysteries probably not meant to be solved, or meant to be explored in a sequel.

There was talk of a sequel for years, and it finally did get made recently. It's the directing debut of special effects artist Dean Jones, who was head of the makeup department on this movie, and Chris Doyle returned to the role of Coffin Baby. It was shot under the title TBK: The Toolbox Murders 2, then retitled Coffin Baby. It's been shot, it exists, and yet I haven't heard anything about it getting a proper release. So there is more to this story out there, but who knows when we'll get to see it?

There aren't many similarities between the original and the remake. Other than some of the murder weapons being the same, like a hammer, a nailgun and a drill, and the fact that a couple of victims were women who were living by themselves, they're different movies that share the same name. There's no sleazy vibe or even sex scenes in the remake, the whole atmosphere is darker and more serious overall.

It's definitely a case of, as the producers wanted, just taking the title and the basic concept of "people in apartments getting killed with tools" and running with it from there. There's a lot more going on in the '04 film, and writers Gierasch and Anderson did a great job expanding on the idea and crafting a intriguing mystery.

It's hard to offer a straight comparison between these two, but they're both very good. I'd probably give the remake the edge over the original, but it doesn't make me like the latter any less.

They are difficult to weigh against each other, because they are quite different films. I agree that they're both very good, each enjoyable to watch on their own terms. The original Toolbox Murders is a great slice of drive-in era exploitation sleaze, while the remake is a great entry in the filmography of a master of horror, an awesome slasher mystery that feels like it could've been the foundation of a franchise, if only things hadn't sputtered out immediately with a sequel taking so long to get made. I'd recommend them both, it just depends which type of movie you're in the mood to watch on a given night.

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