The 13th Floor

Slashback! Is 1978’s THE TOOLBOX MURDERS Based on a Real-Life Crime Spree?

[Warning: NSFW content ahead]

Before we get into the seedy, grimy and straight-up deranged exercise that is Dennis Donnelly’s THE TOOLBOX MURDERS, let’s jump all the way to the film’s dubious one-paragraph epilogue (don’t worry, no serious spoilers here), which begins with the following statement: “The events dramatized in this film actually took place in 1967.”

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This definitely wouldn’t be the first time a notorious and controversial horror film claimed to be based on, or inspired by, actual events: Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO and Tobe Hooper’s THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE both claimed (very) loose connections to the bizarre crimes of infamous murderer, cannibal and necrophile Ed Gein; and as we noted in an earlier article, Wes Craven’s 1977 THE HILLS HAVE EYES (along with Alexandre Aja’s 2006 remake) is based on the cannibalistic crimes of the legendary Sawney Bean clan.

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But what the hell’s the deal with the more overt claim made by the folks behind this sleazy grindhouse favorite? If it was intended as a promotional gimmick, then why didn’t they stamp “BASED ON A TRUE STORY” prominently on the poster?

The trailer, at least, does play up the “true crime” angle, though it dates the crimes at 1977, a decade after the film’s epilogue claims:

The aforementioned epilogue goes on to describe what happened to the survivors: one later died in a car accident, while another was briefly institutionalized, then later married and raised a family not far from the location where the horrific murders occurred.

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According to producer Tony DiDio, the only confirmed inspiration for TOOLBOX was the success of 1974’s THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, which had recently been brought back for an encore screening to packed houses. But according to multiple sources, the murder scenes depicted in the film were at least partially inspired by the crimes of British serial killer Peter Sutcliffe — known by reputation as “The Yorkshire Ripper.”

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The crimes for which Sutcliffe was convicted were mainly committed in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, and after his arrest in 1981 he was confirmed to have murdered thirteen women and seriously wounded five others between the years of 1975 and 1980.

Though not known to display aberrant behavior as a child, Sutcliffe’s downward spiral began well into his adult life, first surfacing as a voyeuristic obsession with prostitutes. That obsession turned violent, culminating in a spree of beatings, slashings and stabbings, most of which involved common household tools — including a ball-peen hammer, utility knives, and a sharpened screwdriver.

During his trial, the killer evidenced signs of paranoid delusions, claiming that God had commanded him to kill the sinful women of the world (which eventually expanded beyond prostitutes), much like the twisted moral code of TOOLBOX’s prime villain. While there’s no verified connection between Sutcliffe’s reign of terror and the fictional killings depicted onscreen, the M.O. and the psychology behind them is strikingly similar.

With that said, let’s re-examine the film on its (rather questionable) cinematic merits…

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Shot in 1977, THE TOOLBOX MURDERS was born from an attempt to capture the same “forbidden” appeal that drew morbidly curious audiences to THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE in droves. Unfortunately, it seems the filmmakers mistook shock value for genuine horror, as TOOLBOX is nowhere as frightening as its 1974 inspiration, but does sport a much higher — and bloodier — onscreen body count.

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Nearly all of that carnage takes place in the film’s first half-hour, which operates entirely within the standard slasher formula: a burly, ski-masked intruder makes his way through a low-rent apartment building, using the assorted contents of a large metal toolbox to attack and kill several of his female tenants over the course of two nights.

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As shocking as the first act may be, it’s perhaps even more disorienting when the film suddenly shifts gears and becomes a loopy psychological thriller… with more emphasis on psycho than logic.

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The now-unmasked killer, who turns out to be the apartment manager (played by stalwart character actor Cameron Mitchell… sorry for the spoiler, but the real twist comes later), kidnaps a teenage girl (familiar child actress Pam Ferdin) whom he believes to be his deceased daughter returned to life. The girl’s brother and his best friend (LAND OF THE LOST’s Wesley Eure) dodge incompetent police in order to do a little amateur sleuthing and rescue her.

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The rest of the film can’t possibly live up to the over-the-top violence of its first act, particularly the infamous nail-gun kill (which would push the boundaries of an R rating even today), but it’s still pretty fascinating to watch — especially when Mitchell pulls out all the stops for his ultra-creepy scenes with Ferdin, whose character is struggling valiantly to convince her captor she’s actually his dead daughter.

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Despite some quirky compositions by prolific cinematographer Gary Graver, Donnelly’s direction is fairly straightforward — with the exception of the nail-gun scene, in which a leggy model (Marianne Walter) partakes in a lengthy bathtub masturbation session, then finds herself at the mercy of a masked intruder (whom she tries to seduce into sparing her), and is ultimately nailed to a poster of herself on the bedroom wall. As with many of the film’s death scenes, the sadistic spectacle is accompanied by a saccharine love ballad spinning on the woman’s turntable.

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In an odd twist of fate, Tobe Hooper — whose TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE served as this film’s primary inspiration — ended up helming the 2004 in-name-only remake TOOLBOX MURDERS, which ditches the psycho-slasher plotline in favor of a decidedly supernatural angle, with enthusiastically gruesome and surreal results; nevertheless, I consider the original TOOLBOX to be a much more memorable entry, and well worth a revisit — especially now that it’s received a solid Blu-ray release from Blue Underground.

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