In the world of horror cinema, a comeback is firmly in the eye of the beholder – but surely no-one needed one more than the late, great Tobe Hooper; the man who gave us The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
By the time we had hit the millennium, Hooper’s already shaky grasp of quality control had dissolved to the fact that he hadn’t made a truly interesting film in years despite choosing such diverse topics as spontaneous combustion, the Marquis De Sade, giant crocodiles and possessed laundry equipment – hardly the stuff worthy of the man the British Film Institute once described as the most influential horror filmmakers of all time.
By 2004, news had drifted out that Hooper’s latest would be a remake of grotty, 70’s slasher, The Toolbox Murders all I’ll admit my hopes sank even further; I mean, a fucking remake, Tobe? Of a movie that saw a doughy, middle-aged, balaclava wearing nutter slaughtering strangely statuesque co-eds with building tools? During the era of torture porn? C’mon dude, you made Poltergeist, surely you’re better than this?
Young, hopeful couple, Nell and Steve, move into the Luxman Arms, a once luxury apartment building that used to house the Hollywood elite during the glory days of cinema. Even though the building is crumbling, the paint is peeling and the walls are thinner than the skin of an eczema sufferer, or seems that the building still has what it takes to lure in numerous wannabe thespians to live under its gloomy roof but teacher Nell and medical student Steve are the rare tenants who aren’t enthralled by the siren song of fame and fortune.
However, the Luxman Arms has far more sinister secrets than just an unscrupulous landlord and a sullen, greasy fringed handyman and it involves the strange disappearances of numerous people living in the building – something that only Nell seems to pick up on. As she becomes more obsessed about the building itself – especially the occult symbols that are etched into the decor on every floor (very chic) – more and more residents simply vanish into thin air and no-one seems willing to accept it.
The truth is, hidden within the walls of the Luxman Arms is numerous spaces and passages, lurks a mangled killer the credits dub “Coffin Baby” who has taken umbrage with the renovation work that’s started on the building and instead of filing a complaint with the city council, has instead decided to use various tools to bludgeon, drill, nail and gouge various people into oblivion as he vents his bloody tantrum.
If Nell’s not careful, the rent’s not the only thing that’s going to get slashed.
While Toolbox Murders (way ahead of the game when dropping the “The”) may not have anything going for it in terms of originality or a polished budget, but lurking within these seemingly restraining confines, Hooper manages to produce his most engaging film in ages. Hooper’s been down these roads before, of course (in fact you could argue that he helped bloody create some of them), but the movie that Toolbox Murders most resembles is his flashy, 1981 slasher, The Funhouse, a film that not only sees idealistic young adults wandering around gloomy surroundings, but also sees them virtually shredded by an exaggeratedly deformed killer; however, while The Funhouse was a noticably polished frightener, Toolbox Murders takes its visual cue from the dingy torture porn flicks that came out in the wake of the DIY brutality of Saw. It’s a job that Hooper does almost too well as the entire film looks like it’s been coated in a fine film of dusty grease and the cinematography carries the jaundiced look as if someone went around the set every morning and pissed in all the lightbulbs. The effect is a nicely oppressive gloom that admittedly makes it tough to discern what’s going on in some shots, but succeeds in creating an unsettling mood for the actors to stumble around in.
Speaking of actors; Hooper’s mischevious sense of humour has been known to let to be somewhat lenient when letting certain actors stray out of the realms of subtlety here and there (the man’s repeatedly worked with Robert Englund, if you needed any proof), but here he admirably keeps everyone mostly on the same page which leads to a mature, typically strong performance from welcomely unorthodox final girl Angela (May, The Woman) Bettis and some appearances of some familiar faces such as Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s Juliet Landau and an extraordinarily rare non-Rob Zombie directed performance from Sherri Moon Zombie who cameos before getting her hair repeatedly parted with a hammer.
This brings us to arguably the most important part of any slasher movie and I’m not referring to cinematography or the sets (although Hooper’s worked on some kick-ass sets); that’s right, I’m talking about the kills and while Toolbox Murders features some descent, throwback gore, there’s nothing here that isn’t eclipsed by other, low budget fare that emerged during the same decade like Adam Green’s Hatchet. Will that being said, a scene where Coffin Baby uses a nail gun (incorrectly, I might add) to pin a woman to the ceiling in order to keep her (still living) body hidden from curious police is appropriately nasty, but thankfully Hooper manages to avoid the usual, overused, torture tropes and even pokes a bit of fun at that much maligned sub-genre when the recipient of a bolt cutter to the spine finally screams “Just kill me!” after a protracted amount of screaming and thrashing. Also, as if to counteract the usual, shallow nature of slasher movies, the fact that the Luxman Arms is a relic of old Hollywood gives the film a bit more meat and maturity than your usual slice and dice as it sticks a cheeky blunt knife into the ribs of a town that burns through innocents at a rate Coffin Baby could only dream of.
So… is comeback too strong a word, then? Well, I guess it isn’t – but I wouldn’t go as far to call it a return to form. I mean, Toolbox Murders is certainly a severed head and shoulders above his recent output, but then Hooper directing an infomercial would probably have more chance of being as memorable as something like Night Terrors or Spontaneous Combustion and instead of a career resurgence, the misadventures of Coffin Baby merely feels like a grand master having a bit of fun while he stretches his legs while he re-sharpens some old tools for old time’s sake.