I had heard good things about this movie and always meant to see it, but it went to the top of my list once I found out it was a remake, as I just love to compare and contrast between remakes. Turns out it’s not a remake at all, it just takes a very general idea from the other movie… an idea so general that I think it should have just been its own movie and not made reference to the other film, but I guess you can get a little more business by positioning your film as a remake. It’s like a song that’s based around a sample from a more popular song… with the sample it has a much better chance of gaining airplay, whereas without one it’s just another song. And they need to drum up as much business as possible, because this poor thing went straight-to-video, despite being directed by genuinely talented but tarnished horror legend Tobe Hooper, and being quite good—so much better than stuff that does get released nowadays. Ah, it’s sad.
So we open with a title saying that many a woman comes to Hollywood to pursue their dreams of stardom, and many of them simply disappear. We then meet Sheri Moon as Daisy, a woman on her way home to the Lusman Arms, this dilapidated residence hotel mostly filled with young women trying to make it. She’s quite charming—she reminded me of Anna Faris, who I’ve liked ever since the first Scary Movie. She goes into her apt, and since this is a horror movie and you know something terrible is going to happen, you notice the multitude of areas in which someone could hide, and notice how expertly Hooper is positioning them around to keep you on guard. The stalking here is very good, you are really in the hands of a master, but once the killer jumped out, I found myself completely bored. It was this way throughout the movie… the energy just dissipates once the killer leaps out. Anyway, Sheri gets a claw hammer to her head, and if you watch, please take note of the little swatch of her scalp stuck to the hammer that you can see on the killer’s upswing.
We then join Nell and Steven, who have just moved in. Nell is justifiably appalled at the state of the building, and Steven is trying to calm her by telling her that they just picked the wrong night to move in [it’s pitch black and raining outside, and a body has just been taken away… in addition to the entire hotel being a nightmare, I mean, NIGHTMARE]. Then the building manager walks in to welcome them, answering all of their concerns by referring them to someone else who will supposedly take care of it, and positioning every broken-down part of the building as its “antique charm.” I found him hilarious, a companion piece to John C. Reilly’s similarly hilarious showcase scene as an unscrupulous real estate agent in Dark Water. Anyway, the building manager informs them that he lives in the apartment just below, which used to belong to Elizabeth Short, subject of the recent The Black Dahlia, also in part about young women who come to Hollywood and find murder and sexual horrors. Oh, and I get it: the screenplay is trying to float the idea that the Short murder was committed by this film’s killer.
Then Steven “sets the mood” with Nell by laying on top of her and growling, and they’re just going to go at it when this nutty character named Saffron walks in and starts delivering this crazy monologue. The actress who plays Saffron is a little OTT, but her character is flat-out INSANE, and it really started to annoy me that Nell and Steven never seem to lock their door. Is L.A. really that safe? Okay, even though they don’t know that there is a homicidal maniac running around, they DO know that Saffron is out there and she is totally certifiable, so… lock the fucking door!
Then we meet Austin, a kid down the hall, and his HILARIOUS mother, played by Stephanie Sterling, who is one of those achingly fashionable and overstressed hysterical women; she comes in talking on the phone, then calls out to her husband to bring her some stockings, and when he comes in, utters an end-of-her-tether cry that she can’t possibly wear black, and you realize—this movie is an out-and-out comedy! It’s hilarious, not just in all these goofy characters, but in how ludicrously obvious it is in positioning everything to be as scary as possible. I was laughing every few seconds for the whole first half.
Anyway, so Nell goes downstairs to do her laundry [and you’re like okay, so they moved in at 10pm, had sex until midnight, and then she’s doing her laundry at 2am? It least that’s what it seems like], where she runs into the lurking, pre-verbal Ned, the handyman. This is the guy the building manager was telling Nell to call in case of trouble, which is also a little hilarious when you finally see him, as this is the last person who seems capable of offering assistance in any capacity.
In here we meet Juliet Landau [daughter of Martin Landau and Barbra Bain of Space:1999, and whom surely you fondly recall as Drusilla from Buffy Season Two] returning from jogging. She chooses to wear two layers of shirts, a denim miniskirt and a flannel shirt to go jogging—odd—but you will notice how this outfit is very carefully selected to look like a Catholic schoolgirl uniform without actually being a catholic schoolgirl outfit [see above]. She flirts with the doorman, then offers the camera a view right up between her legs as she bends over to “stretch.” It was nice to see Juliet again, and she and Bettis, also very good, share a very nice scene a bit later where they both get to sit down and do some fine acting.
Anyway, Steven is a resident doctor, and is called to the hospital, while Nell gets more and more creeped out, first by the screaming she hears down the hall [she calls the police, but it turns out to be two actors rehearing a scene], then by the guy beating up, then fucking the woman next door, and again by the sound of the woman next door being murdered with a nail gun. Of course, now Nell is reluctant to call the police, having made a fool of herself earlier. And then she finds a box of teeth in the wall. The girl is slowly unraveling, and who can blame her? If I were her, I would have totally lost it by then. Nevertheless, she remains in her apartment, never thinking to just go somewhere else, and I was like; “Sweetie, maybe you should go out and get some fresh air. You’re going nuts in here.”
MINOR SPOILERS > > >
I won’t tell you the ending, but suffice to say it takes a slight turn from what you think it’s going to be at the beginning, but not in such a way that it’s alienating. There are a few other amusing elements, like when the scary boyfriend who was banging the woman next door hears a hint that the woman might have been with someone else, and calls her “Miss dirty legs.” Then Scarlett starts singing a song called “Surrealistic Summer,” which contains the line “As I sit here slowly waiting, I feel just like a Dali painting” [also… “slowly waiting?” Can you wait quickly?]. I love the bit when the killer stabs Steven in the belly, and Nell runs by the killer as though he wasn’t even there, and kneels over Steven with her back to the killer, two feet behind her, saying “Steven? Can you hear me, baby?” Which is amusing enough as it is, but also… does being stabbed in the belly affect your hearing? We also find out that the killer was apparently a “coffin baby,” which means that he “clawed his way out of his mother’s womb as she was being buried.” Which is… I don’t know, aren’t bodies around for a few days before they’re buried?
< < < SPOILERS END
I was totally into it. It was genuinely creepy and so, so funny, and filled with very good performances and really great stalking sequences. I had only seen Angela Bettis in the TV version of Carrie, where I thought she was horrible, but now I suspect that she was just directed that way… in addition to fighting a horrid script. I haven’t seen her most famous role, May, although it’s definitely on my list. As I said, it was also great to see Juliet Landau, and see her be given a chance to do something other than be Dru. We need some more Juliet out there.
Anyway, definitely highly recommended for those who like a good slasher deliciously marbled with rich veins of hilarious comedy. Yay, Tobe Hooper!
THE TOOLBOX MURDERS (1978) is the original film, which bears only the most superficial similarity to this one.