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Toolbox Murders (2003)

If you lived here, youd be dead by now.

Rating: 5/10

Running Time: 95 minutes

US Certificate: R UK Certificate: 15

Despite having “unique architectural features” and “a lot of history”, an eccentric Hollywood apartment complex called the Lusman Arms has seen better days, and an ongoing programme of refurbishment (with a high accident rate amongst the workers) has made it able to attract only the impoverished, the desperate or the strange to its rooms. New tenant Nell (Angela ‘May’ Bettis) is spooked by the alarming noises she hears at night, the cache of human teeth and hair she finds hidden behind a wall, and by the mysterious disappearance of two neighbours – but everyone, including her husband Steven (Brent Roam), thinks she is just being paranoid. Except that, amidst the delapidated brickwork and strange masonic symbols lies a long-term resident who, mightily disturbed by all the commotion and renovations in the building, is out to do some drastic preservation work with a set of very sharp tools.

With its slice-and-dice sensibilities and vaguely low-life characters, ‘Toolbox Murders’ positions itself as yet another in the current spate of seventies horror retreads (like the recent remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Dawn of the Dead) – and even if it has little in common with Dennis Donnelly’s second-rate slasher ‘The Toolbox Murders’ (1978) apart from the lurid title and the killer with a predilection for ski-masks and construction tools, the film at least tries to renovate the long-dead career of director Tobe Hooper who triumphed in the seventies with the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and the desperately underrated ‘Deathtrap’ (1977), before becoming mired in decades of mediocrity. Here he reteams with writers Jace Anderson and Adam Gierasch, who had previously collaborated with him on the forgettable nature’s-revenger ‘Crocodile’ (2000) – and while it is Hooper’s name that gives this new piece its seventies credibility, it is also his bland direction which lets down the film’s often witty script and the excellent character acting.

Really ‘Toolbox Murders’ ought to be great. Its unusual combination of the claustrophobic neurosis of ‘The Tenant’ or ‘Barton Fink’ with the occult architecture of ‘Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth’ or ’13 Ghosts’ is all filmed on location in LA’s spectacular Ambassador Hotel (where the very first Academy Awards were held in 1919, and where Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968). Yet all that it adds up to is a bunch of promising ideas that ultimately fizzle away into nothing, and some cheap look-behind-you scares that seem, well, dated. It would be possible to put this down to interference from the MPAA which forced the film to be cut down. Still, it is difficult to shake the sense that the quaintly antiquated but undeniably charming building at the centre of ‘Toolbox Murders’ is an aptly ominous metaphor for the film itself – for no matter how much repair and attention they seem to require, it would have been better not to tamper with the solid 1970s foundations of ‘Toolbox Murders’.

Some things are better left buried.

It's Got: Good oddball cast, some funny lines, spectacular set.

It Needs: To follow through on its own premises - and to be scarier.


A haunted building with lots of half-finished stories and a few too many, er, flaws.