The Savage Stack - THE TOOLBOX MURDERS (1978)

The scummy, under-loved slasher is a blitzkrieg of brutal, Biblical violence.

There’s always going to be – for lack of a better term – a stack of films we’ve been meaning to get to. Whether it’s a pile of DVDs and Blu-rays haphazardly amassed atop our television stands, or a seemingly endless digital queue on our respective streaming accounts, there’s simply more movies than time to watch them. This column is here to make that problem worse. Ostensibly an extension of Everybody’s Into Weirdness (may that series rest in peace), The Savage Stack is a compilation of the odd and magnificent motion pictures you probably should be watching instead of popping in The Avengers for the 2,000th time. Not that there’s anything wrong with filmic “comfort food” (God knows we all have titles we frequently return to when we crave that warm and fuzzy feeling), but if you love movies, you should never stop searching for the next title that’s going to make your “To Watch” list that much more insurmountable. Some will be favorites, others oddities, with esoteric eccentricities thrown in for good measure. All in all, a mountain of movies to conquer. 

The forty-first entry into this unbroken backlog is the super scummy explo-slasher, The Toolbox Murders...

It takes roughly twenty minutes for any discernible plot to kick in when watching The Toolbox Murders ('78) -- Dennis Donnelly's hyper-scuzzy pre-Halloween slasher that actually beat John Carpenter's immortal classic to theaters by a full five months. Following a credits sequence set to thundering piano, strings and distorted transmissions from a radio preacher, who screams at us about the need to "cut out sin" from the dash, a sudden screech and the sounds of shattering glass and twisted metal brings it all to a halt. We pause this horrific broadcast to observe an accident scene, where a young girl is being loaded up into the back of an ambulance, all bruised and bloody. Who is she? What does she mean to us? Is she merely a terrible memory, or a tragedy occuring right before our eyes? 

None of this seems to matter to Donnelly, who charges straight ahead and transports us to a run down California apartment building, where a masked man proceeds to murder a collection of its residents using different tools from his metal handyman's box. The violence is savage and unflinching, as one woman is drilled to death, another is stabbed with a sharp screwdriver, and yet another is given the prying end of a hammer, straight to her face. The murders are presented in a matter of fact fashion that will remind the hardest core slasher heads of experimental dronecore gore operettas such as Ogroff: Mad Mutilator ('83) and Folies Meurtrieres ('84). The lack of clear cut introductory stroytelling renders the footage borderline experimental, as the film assaults the audience from its first frame. 

As if looking to push the envelope even further, Donnelly stops the heinous violence dead in its tracks to watch the building's prettiest tenant (XXX starlet Kelly Nichols) draw herself a bubble bath and then rub out a quickie in the tub. Here's where The Toolbox Murders crosses the line from simple slasher to pure scum exploitation, as we're locked in with the woman, watching her pleasure herself as if it were for our eyes only. To add literal injury to this intrusion of privacy, the ski-masked maniac bursts in moments later, and pins her to the wall with a nail gun. In the annals of horror cinema, there are few moments as leeringly cruel, blatantly titillating the audience before punishing the woman because Donnelly's lens transformed her body into nothing more than a sex object. Slashers have always been (rightfully) accused of possessing a puritanical streak, but this is a little ridiculous. 

Once Donnelly -- along with his trio of screenwriters (cheap thrill regulars Nev Friedenn, Robert Easter and Ann Kindberg) -- finally settle into telling an actual story, The Toolbox Murders unfolds like the perviest Hardy Boys mystery never written (double feature this with Michael Winner's Scream For Help ['84] for maximum effect). Local kids Kent (Wesley Eure) and Joey (Nicolas Beauvy) start looking into the slayings that've left the local detectives completely stumped, while we're able to figure out the killer's identity in roughly sixty seconds flat. Meanwhile, the complex's super (exploitation stalwart Cameron Mitchell) just wants everyone to leave his tenants be, as further inquiries are only going to bring more bad press to his low rent community. It's your standard whodunit, but the relentless savagery has hooked us, casting a rather diabolical spell. 

Truth be told, The Toolbox Murders is a really nasty affair -- utterly unpleasant up until its final moments. But Dennis Donnelly has crafted a San Fernando Valley slice of gnarly exploitation that's sure to please even the most hardcore horror hounds. While the mutilations comes fast and furious, there's not a whole lot of gore to speak of. Instead, there's a fatalistic tone that permeates every frame, reinforced by George Deaton's preposterously portentous score. The fact that a good portion of the slaughter takes place during daylight hours only reinforces how the movie makes the mundane seem sinister. Just like its title implies, a simple set of tools can suddenly be transformed into a lethal collection of weapons, ready to cut the sin from California, should the lunatic who wields them deem it necessary.