Toolbox Murders, The (4K UHD Review)

  • Reviewed by: Tim Salmons
  • Review Date: Jan 19, 2022
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Toolbox Murders, The (4K UHD Review)

Director

Dennis Donnelly

Release Date(s)

1978 (January 18, 2022)

Studio(s)

Cal-Am Artists (Blue Underground)
  • Film/Program Grade: B
  • Video Grade: A
  • Audio Grade: A-
  • Extras Grade: A

The Toolbox Murders (Blu-ray Disc)

Buy it Here!

Review

Inspired by the success of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Toolbox Murders was one of many horror films in late 1970s and early 1980s to come under a considerable amount of scrutiny, especially in the UK during the “Video Nasty” period. Panned critically, and even derided by many in the horror community to this day, it remains a complicated film that’s front-loaded with sleaze but mixed with effective performances that allow audiences to connect with the killer in a very personal way. Off-putting to some, boring to others, and downright offensive to a vast majority, The Toolbox Murders remains one of the more infamous slashers of its era.

Late one evening, a madman in a ski mask with a toolbox wanders into an apartment complex and murders four random women, implementing a drill, a hammer, a screwdriver, and a nail gun. The police are left with no suspects after questioning the building’s tenants, as well as its owner, Vance Kingsley (Cameron Mitchell). In the aftermath, Kingsley pays his nephew Kent (Wesley Eure) and Kent’s friend Joey (Nicholas Ballard) to clean up the messes in the apartments. The next night, Joey’s sister Laurie (Pamelyn Ferdin) is kidnapped by the killer, but who it is and why they’ve kidnapped Laurie reveals a broken and unstable person torn apart by a tragedy.

Producer Tony DiDio asked his writers to come up with something that could generate the same kind of revenue that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre had, eventually hiring TV director Dennis Donnelly (Adam-12 and Emergency!) to helm the project. The final product has a TV movie vibe unintentionally, aside from the nudity and violence, which is also aided by the casting of Pamelyn Ferdin and Wesley Eure, two familiar faces on TV at the time. Ferdin had also dabbled in horror previously with What’s the Matter with Helen? and The Mephisto Waltz, but is perhaps best remembered as Amy in The Beguiled and as the voice of Fern in Charlotte’s Web. It’s well-documented that Cameron Mitchell was a struggling actor at the time, though reports of his alcoholism on the set are said to be exaggerated. Regardless, he gives the best performance in the film, delivering what could have been hokey and laughable depending upon the direction.

The Toolbox Murders is undoubtedly one the sleaziest horror films of its time. Look no further than the killer walking in on a naked woman (Kelly Nichols) masturbating in the bathtub and chasing her across her apartment with a nail gun. She even offers her wet, naked body to the killer at one point in order to distract him and run away. The scene is so memorable that it wound up on the film’s poster, and remains the primary piece of artwork for subsequent home video releases to this day. Many also accuse the period of time after the killings to be lackadaisical, but the reveal of the killer and everything thereafter is so compelling that it makes up for it. For such a lurid film at the outset, it manages to deal with love and loss in a surprisingly effective way, making it more interesting (and even repellent to some) than many of its counterparts, particularly throughout the 1980s. While people Stephen King continue to carry a torch for it, The Toolbox Murders continues on as a cult favorite that many still would rather push aside than embrace.

The Toolbox Murders was shot by director of photography Gary Graver on 35 mm film using Arriflex 35 cameras and spherical lenses, and finished photochemically in the 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Blue Underground brings the film to Ultra HD with a new 4K 16-bit scan and restoration of the original uncut camera negative, now graded for high dynamic range (both Dolby Vision and HDR10 options are available). Unsurprisingly, it’s another quality presentation from the studio. A fine sheen of natural film grain remains in the image. The new HDR pass allows for amazing depth, with deep blacks and newfound detail in the shadows. The color palette can be vivid in certain areas, including the many neon interior hues of a bar and a certain bedroom (spoilers keep this from getting specific). Bright swaths of red, green, and purple are on full display, as are natural flesh tones. Contrast is perfect and the image is stable, with only a few faint scratches and a minor bit of speckling remaining to reveal the film’s vintage. It’s an otherwise superlative picture.

The audio is included in English Dolby Atmos (English 7.1 Dolby TrueHD compatible) and English 5.1 and 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. Subtitle options included English SDH, French, and Spanish. The Atmos mix replicates the 5.1 in terms of the quality of the various elements and even their placement, but widens things a bit without overdoing it. Some of the sound effects, particularly instances of footsteps, occasionally have an odd echo quality, which is not found on the original mono track. The country music that plays in the background during the murders has sibilance issues, sounding incredibly tinny during the aforementioned killing of the lady in the bathtub. Otherwise, dialogue exchanges are discernible and the score by George Deaton offers plenty of depth. The Atmos track expands upon the original mono without really adding anything new, but which track is the more preferable is a matter of taste.

Blue Underground’s Ultra HD release also includes a Blu-ray of the film in 1080p featuring the same restoration. The following extras are included on each disc, all in HD aside from I Got Nailed in The Toolbox Murders, which has been upsampled:

DISC ONE: UHD

  • Audio Commentary with Tony DiDio, Gary Graver, and Pamelyn Ferdin
  • Audio Commentary with Troy Howarth and Nathaniel Thompson
  • Theatrical Trailer (2:20)
  • TV Spot (:32)
  • Radio Spot #1 (:33)
  • Radio Spot #2 (:30)

DISC TWO: BD

  • Audio Commentary with Tony DiDio, Gary Graver, and Pamelyn Ferdin
  • Audio Commentary with Troy Howarth and Nathaniel Thompson
  • Unpacking the Toolbox with Dennis Donnelly (20:17)
  • Tools of the Trade: Killer Reflections with Wesley Eure (26:47)
  • Flesh and Blood: An Interview with Kelly Nichols (31:16)
  • I Got Nailed in The Toolbox Murders (8:08)
  • Slashback Memories (24:40)
  • “They Know I Have Been Sad”: Unwinding Themes of Grief in The Toolbox Murders (19:27)
  • Theatrical Trailer (2:20)
  • TV Spot (:32)
  • Radio Spot #1 (:33)
  • Radio Spot #2 (:30)
  • Poster & Still Gallery (111 in all)
  • Easter Egg (:45)

The audio commentary with producer Tony DiDio, director of photography Gary Graver, and actress Pamelyn Ferdin, which was recorded for the film’s 2002 DVD release, is an excellent audio companion that sounds a bit like a question and answer session at times, but the contributors provide plenty of valuable information about the film and their participation with it. They tend to go quiet, but it’s worth sticking with regardless. In the new audio commentary with authors and film historians Troy Howarth and Nathaniel Thompson, the two talk about the film at length while watching it together. They discuss many of its positive aspects, its place within giallo and slasher film history, their personal connections to it and how they found it for the first time, and backgrounds on members of the main cast and crew. They argue in favor of Cameron Mitchell and his performance and speak about the alternate titles for the film overseas, as well as the validity of the film being based upon a true story.

Unpacking the Toolbox (erroneously titled Drill Sergeant on the main menu) is a new interview that speaks to director Dennis Donnelly about his career leading up to The Toolbox Murders, getting the film and its proposed budget, having plenty of time to prep the film, working on a low budget, shooting shots with a crane, working with Cameron Mitchell, the kinds of tools used in the film, the film’s effects, dealing with nudity and the MPAA, seeing the film for the first time, and getting more work after the film. Tools of the Trade is a new interview that speaks to actor Wesley Eure about his success on TV at the time he was cast in the film, his character, not being able to shake the character after the film was over, working with Dennis Donnelly, keeping his distance from the actors, the strength of the cast, getting emotional remembering his scenes with Pamelyn Ferdin, shooting on a low budget, the film’s appeal, seeing the film for the first time, his friends hilariously confusing this with C.H.O.M.P.S. upon its initial release, the critics, and reluctantly becoming friends with a street gang because of his recognition from the film.

Flesh and Blood and I Got Nailed in The Toolbox Murders are new and vintage interviews that speak to actress Kelly Nichols aka Marianne Walter about getting into pornography, being a make-up artist, developing her stage name, doubling for Jessica Lange in King Kong, being cast in The Toolbox Murders, shooting her scene, working with Cameron Mitchell, seeing the film for the first time, pulling back on being a model and working behind the scenes, getting a SAG card, her porn career, her favorite films that she was in, being recognized on the street, and still talking about her career after all these years. In Slashback Memories, critic and film historian David Del Valle talks about Cameron Mitchell at length, discussing his career, Mitchell going to Italy to make movies, his work in exploitation, people being excited for things that they can’t see, being an established star in low budget films, the remake, Mitchell working on The Klansman, and Mitchell’s commitment to his various performances, regardless of the quality of the material.

“They Know I Have Been Sad” is a new video essay by film historian Amanda Reyes and filmmaker Chris O’Neill. In it, Reyes discusses the film’s more positive aspects, many of which have been misunderstood since its release. She also reads critical reviews of the day and assesses that because it isn’t like any of the slasher films that came before or after it that it serves as a bridge to what slasher films would eventually become. She further states that the film deals with loss and grief in a very human way, noting her own personal connection to the film because of it. The Poster & Still Gallery features 111 images of posters, advertising materials, lobby cards, promotional stills, behind-the-scenes stills, home video artwork, and a script cover. The Easter Egg can be found by pressing down when Extras is highlighted, which will reveal a drop of blood on the end of the hammer in the film’s title. Pressing enter will make it drip and showcase an interview outtake with Wesley Eure about working on the film C.H.O.M.P.S..

The discs sit inside a black amaray case with artwork featuring the original poster. Everything is housed within an embossed slipcover. It’s worth noting that only one extra has not carried over from previous releases. The 88 Films Region B Blu-ray release features an exclusive audio commentary with Justin Kerswell and Calum Waddell. Otherwise, everything is accounted for.

Blue Underground offers another excellent Ultra HD upgrade with The Toolbox Murders, a film that many first experienced in grindhouses andvia low quality VHS presentations in the years prior to DVD and Blu-ray. This release, however, surpasses them all, offering a quality presentation and a satisfying extras package. Highly recommended.

- Tim Salmons

(You can follow Tim on social media at these links: Twitter and Facebook. And be sure to subscribe to his YouTube channel here.)

 

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