I watched this one basically because I had heard good things about the recent Tobe Hooper "reimagining," and wanted to see the original before I watched it. The credits play over footage of a guy driving around in the night listening to a religious zealot on the radio. Then the picture freezes [causing you at home to say “oh shit, is the DVD scratched?”], and we flash back to this car accident in which [we later discover] the driver’s daughter was killed. While this is happening we first notice the nice Pino Donaggio sound-alike score by George Deaton. Anyway, so the guy comes to this apartment complex where a young woman is enjoying a little topless time in her apartment as she listens to a 70s lite rock song seemingly called “Carolina in the morning.” The killer comes at her with a drill [and drills her arm, in a quick, creepy shot], causing her to leave bloody handprints all over the walls as she runs through the place. She locks herself in the bathroom, and the guy drills through the center of the door, which somehow causes the lock [three feet away] to come undone. He gets in and finishes the job.
Soon another woman just happens to be getting undressed, also listening to lite rock, and he hammers her. He walks around the apartment complex unnoticed in a black ski mask and bloody toolbox. We later see that the hammer victim was masturbating to pictures of nude women, and we have some other little dialogue hint that she was lesbian. Next is a pretty woman who decides to take it all off and enjoy some leg caressing while taking a bath. She REALLY enjoys caressing her legs, and you think that this is going to stand in for the real act, but eventually she dives in for the big cookie. Again a cheesy 70s lite rock song plays. She notices the guy standing there, and runs around the apartment building. None of these women think it might be a good idea to LEAVE THEIR APARTMENT, they just run around from room to room. My favorite part is when the nail gun woman runs into the bedroom and just stays on the bed, apparently hoping that the masked psycho will just lose interest and not bother perusing her in there.
By now we have noticed several things. For one, this movie is perfectly happy to take time out to ogle topless women. And frankly I doubt, even during the early 80s, that any random apartment complex had quite the same amount of women parading around sensuously nude at one time. There is always a lite rock song on during the murders, making one wonder if this was one of Tarantino’s inspirations for playing “Stuck in the Middle With You” during the ear-removal sequence of Reservoir Dogs. The women are shown having some sort of sexual arousal, THEN being killed, often in ways that invite the audience to ogle their nude bodies as they die or are dead. The nail gun victim had just finished having an orgasm when the killer walked in with his nail gun, held quite phallically as he stalks her.
Anyway, so we now introduce Kent and Joey, two young men who seem to share a somewhat homoerotic relationship, especially notable when Joey throws Kent a dildo and Kent throws it down in disgust. Sometime before or after this Joey’s sister Laurie got kidnapped, and the police became aware that there’s a killer stalking around.
SPOILERS > > >
Turns out the kidnapper is the manager of the motel, named Kingsley and played by bad movie king Cameron Mitchell. He dresses Laurie up like a little girl and has her tied to the bed, where he comes in and talks to her as though she’s his dead daughter Kathy, the one killed in the accident we saw at the beginning. At one point he sings a Negro spiritual to her: “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”
So then we see Kent go and find her, but are soon surprised when he doesn’t tell anyone where she is. Turns out Kent has an obsession of his own with Laurie, and after he kills Kingsley [by tormenting then lighting him on fire], he washes her doll and attempts to rape her. And then I realize that I need to take better notes, including writing down major plot points that I am always sure I’ll remember the next day [and character names, I ALWAYS need to remind myself to write down character names], because here it is, less than 24 hours later, and I absolutely cannot recall how this movie ends. I’m sure Joey dies somehow or other, or gets caught or something. Whatever, it won’t be a shock.
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Overall it was fine. For a “splatter classic” and a “video nasty,” there was very little gore. But it did have that Argento thing of women walking down long white hallways leaving bloody handprints every few feet, and that can be remarkably effective. This movie is rather remarkable in the quite pointed use of cheesy pop songs to create suspense and offset horror with the everyday, but for me it didn’t really work. It was one of those “oh, I see what he’s doing,” but I didn’t get much of any effect from it. This movie also deserves any criticism it gets from feminists, as the excitement it has to offer is that of women getting naked and enjoying themselves [some more than others], then getting stalked, terrorized and killed, whereupon we are invited to get our jollies off of their horror and extended viewing of their dead, nude bodies. So it's this viewpoint that the women deserve to be tortured and killed because they're harlots who masturbate, which drives men into a murderous frenzy. And the movie reveals itself as somewhat supportive [or at least reinforcing] of this viewpoint by inviting the audience to leer at the women's eroticized dead bodies. I don’t know, it’s just not for me. Maybe it would be different if there was a movie about a killer stalking middle-aged firemen in jockstraps… but to be honest I kind of doubt it.
There aren’t a lot of extras on the disc, commentary, trailers, etc., but there is an 8-minute interview with Pamelyn Ferdin, who is credited as “nail gun victim.” She says at one point “there were some attacks on the movie in the 80s, some kind of misogyny or something, and that is very funny to me.” You will notice, of course, that this is no kind of argument to support her viewpoint. She then describes how she went on to become a prolific porn star, and eventually started doing makeup for both porn and regular films. She still looks fantastic, by the way. The trailer isn’t all that notable, although it did kind of make me giggle for the way the tagline just kind of peters out at the end: “A true story! When you stop screaming… you’ll start talking about it.”
If you’re a horror completist, it has a lot of good elements and is worth seeing. If you’re not, it can’t hurt, but you could also live without it.
TOOLBOX MURDERS  is a very good slasher by Tobe Hooper that is vaguely inspired by this film.