Color, 1978, 94m.
Directed by Dennis Donnelly
Starring Cameron Mitchell, Pamlyn Ferdin, Wesley Eure, Nicolas Beauvy, Aneta Corsaut
Blue Underground (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9) / DD7.1/DTS

By the late 1970s, the exploding horror movie market was beginning to split into three camps: glossy Hollywood entertainments, straightforward slasher films inspired by Halloween and Black Christmas, and sleazy studies in psychopathic behavior strongly inspired by roughie exploitations films of the previous decade. The line between these three became blurry at times, with critics often confusing the latter two. Often cited as a slasher film due to its notorious opening half hour, The Toolbox Murders is really more of a post-roughie sleaze film in closer company with the likes of Maniac and Don't Go in the House whose ancestors include disreputable titles like Forced Entry and the works of Michael and Roberta Findlay. For that reason, this film often confuses horror fans expecting a traditional stalk-and-slash film but instead wind up getting something far more complicated and disturbing instead.

The aforementioned opening act of The Toolbox Murders is a marvel of economical trash filmmaking, delivering a nonstop parade of T&A, tacky easy listening music, and one brutal after another with a psycho in a Torso-style ski mask making inventive use of his bottomless toolbox. Hammers, chisels, drills, and -- in the most infamous moment of all -- a nail gun applied to bathing, self-pleasuing actress Marianne Walter (aka porn star Kelly Nichols) set the tone for what promises to be a nearly plotless exercise in carnage, only for the story to abruptly serve instead into something resembling a sordid Tennessee Williams play relocated to the San Fernando Valley circa '78. At an apartment complex seemingly populated by alcoholic or slutty women, landlord/handyman Vance Kingsley (Mitchell) is perplexed by the fact that young ladies are being brutally murdered two nights in a row. Meanwhile one of the teenage tenants, Laurie (Ferdin), has gone missing, and her blond surfer dude brother Joey (Beauvy) teams up with Vance's twitchy nephew, Kent (Eure), to find out what's really going on.

Since the film makes it plainly obvious who the killer is by barely disguising his face during the murder scenes, TV director Dennis Donnelly must resort to other methods of holding the viewer's attention. Much of this relies on letting the wonderfully hammy Mitchell rip into his role with full gusto, and his big scene with former child actress Ferdin (who had already dipped her toes in gender-baiting terror with Don Siegel's The Beguiled and The Mephisto Waltz) is quite unlike anything else ever put on film, a jaw-dropping protracted dramatic exercise that comes completely out of left field. Meanwhile the amateur sleuthing by TV actor Eure (best known from Land of the Lost) and The Cowboys' Beauvy results in its own fair share of surreal moments, particularly Eure's reaction to being tossed Walter's used dildo (itself the basis of an unforgettable chapter title on the disc). The openly gay Eure has some pretty strange chemistry with his co-star which gets even more uncomfortable after the plot's big reveal at the start of the third act, culminating in a big fiery confrontation that, strangely enough, is completely ignored or forgotten by both the characters and script just moments later. Then there's the finale, oddly the least violent sequence in the film, which also manages to be the most sordid as it pairs up the squeaky-clean Ferdin and Eure for a resolution that will leave any nostalgic '70s TV fans in a state of extreme unease. Hilariously, it all closes with a disclaimed trying to pass off the events as a true story (a la Texas Chainsaw), but no one really bought it. Oh, and this has nothing to do with the 2003 Tobe Hooper remake of the same title, which is another subject altogether.

The very first Blue Underground DVD out of the gate along with Shock Waves, this title has been a home video mainstay for years after igniting a storm of controvery upon its successful theatrical release. It became a regular punching bag by the likes of Phil Donahue and the BBFC, though anyone accustomed to current torture-laden horror offerings will probably wonder what all the screaming is about. However, the sheer viciousness and close promiximity of the opening murders packs a significant punch and goes way beyond what the MPAA would find remotely acceptable for an R rating today; how it even managed to squeak by with one back in '78 is a complete mystery, though Blue Underground's "Not Rated" on the packaging indicates something might have been going on behind the scenes. In any case, their DVD presentation was quite fine for the time and paved the way for their Blu-Ray upgrade, a stellar presentation featuring one of the best catalog horror transfers around and a stiff competitor with the same company's New York Ripper for the most eye-popping presentation of a film you never thought would be treated so well. While the commercial elements of The Toolbox Murders are all rendered with startling clarity here (and yes, you can see every bit of detail in Walter's ungroomed nether regions), the film is also much more enjoyable in HD for its most aesthetic quality as a picture-perfect portrait of '70s Valley life. Many apartments around Burbank still look the same (yes, even down to the interiors and wall heaters), but the presentation here is a nonstop cavalcade of tacky carpeting, wall ornamentation, neon-saturated bars, and lo-tech garages. The immaculate image quality might indicate something that was shot yesterday, but the production design clearly gives the game away. Top marks all around. The audio aspect isn't quite as impressive given the very limited nature of the original sound recording (Eure and Beauvy tend to mumble or slur some of their lines, so prepare to flip on those optional English, Spanish or French subtitles from time to time), but the music sounds great and all the screaming comes through loud and clear. The center-heavy DTS-HD 7.1 mix offers a bit of minor ambient support to the more densely-mixed portions, but it really isn't all that different from the original mono mix (with a third 5.1 option coming somewhere in between). Apart from ditching the DVD's still gallery, the Blu-Ray carries over all the extras including an entertaining commentary track with a very game Ferdin, late cinematographer Gary Graver (who shot hundreds of beloved drive-in films when he wasn't moonlighting as an adult film director), and producer Tony DiDio, all of whom look back fondly on the film and talk about their various showbiz experiences while occasionally reacting hysterically to the feature at hand. Walter/Nichols appears for the on-camera featurette, "I Got Nailed in The Toolbox Murders," in which she talks in depth about her famous demise and one of its most famous fans as well as her subsequent careers in showbiz. The disc rounds out with the theatrical trailer, a particularly ominous TV spot, and radio spots.

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