Friday, 1 August 2008

The Toolbox Murders

Though obviously not a European production, this was one of those films which I had long felt was significant from a historical perspective but had never gotten around to seeing until now.

Released in the UK on a double bill with Zombie Flesh Eaters / Zombie it can in retrospect be seen as part of a key moment in the emergence the 'new' horror and of the so-called “video nasty,” with both films subsequently being banned as a result of the 1984 Video Recordings Act.

More recently the 2005 remake / reinterpretation directed by Tobe Hooper – how the mighty have fallen – was of interest for the strange geometry of its apartment block, as something more akin to the witch houses of Suspiria and Inferno than real world architecture, an element which perhaps helps explain how its screenwriters subsequently worked with Argento on The Third Mother.

Ambiguous images of the traumatic incident in the past that compels murder in the present

Returning to the original film, meanwhile, we also have a number of slasher and / or giallo elements.

These begin with the traumatic flashback, soon revealed as motivating the killer on his murder spree, in which a young woman falls out of a car, sustaining injuries that prove fatal; the presentation here is decidedly odd, as the image of the car driving along unexpectedly freeze-frames as the sound of a crash is heard on the soundtrack, following which we get the images of the accident itself.

Significantly the whole is also accompanied by a fire and brimstone type preacher attacking sinfulness and corruption, as the type of broadcast that it seems unlikely the presumably young and fun-loving inhabitants of the car would have been listening to, but which could well express the maniac's attitudes or even be read as part of his subjective reconstruction of this “primal scene”.

Whatever the case, we then return to the more concrete present as the killer, clad in black and wearing a ski-mask, swiftly murders three women in the apartment block that is to serve, like the aforementioned Argento fantasy horrors and Case of the Bloody Iris alike, as the film's predominant location.

The first victim, Mrs Andrews, a boozy middle-aged divorcee, attempts to defend herself with her bottle, but is run through with a power drill.

The second and third, a younger woman, Debbie, and her (girl)friend, Maria, are bludgeoned to death with a claw hammer and stabbed with a screwdriver respectively, Maria also managing to kick the killer in the groin, stunning him momentarily.

Got my black gloves on, got my ski mask on...

Debbie's actions are somewhat strange, perhaps explicable only via the logic of the exploitation film. Arriving home, she prepares to take a shower. Then, having turned the water on, she notices a shape behind the curtain and pauses. It is only some clothes, hanging up. Nevertheless, still clothed, she then steps into the shower to turn it off, then takes off her now wet and clinging white shirt and changes into a different one, apparently completely abandoning the idea of having the shower to thus curiously give us some of what 'we' want to see (i.e. breasts) but not the rest (i.e. bum and bush).

Following this the crimes are discovered and the police, led by Detective Jamison, arrive to investigate, oddly questioning the other inhabitants of the apartment block at the crime scenes and seemingly quite happy for just about anyone and everyone to wander in.

In the process we're introduced to some suspects and red herrings, though compared to the typical giallo there are fewer of both types, with it likely that most viewers familiar with playing amateur detective will have very little difficulty in identifying the guilty party amongst those present; again recalling Case of the Bloody Iris, we've got someone with an intimate knowledge of the building and its inhabitants who has or claims to have a blood phobia, namely the block manager Mr Kingsley (Cameron Mitchell).

As is so often the case in these films the police prove singularly ineffectual however, with a further murder taking place the very next evening along with an abduction.

The fourth murder set-piece provides the nudity that was lacking earlier, as Dee Ann (Kelly Nichols) is attacked with a nail gun after pleasuring herself in the bath (“Take me to your secret world again,” as the man on the love duet playing on the radio sings here). Dee Ann also makes some efforts at self-defence, and at attempting to reason with the killer (“please, put it down – I'll do anything”) though again these are to no avail. (The killer, that is, is not like Leatherface in Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2, for whom sex supplants the desire to kill at a similar moment.)

The abduction meanwhile leads to something of a shift in the narrative, with the identity of the killer and his motivation – the abducted girl, Laurie (Pamelyn Ferdin), reminds him of virginal dead daughter, while all his victims are understood as whores, representing the types who led her astray and precipitated her death – being revealed by the mid-way point of the film.

This is a device unrepresentative of typically more mystery-oriented giallo and slasher films – Halloween an exception here – and one that which provides for a more detailed and sympathetic exploration of the killer's psychology than is often the case usual, even if this still remains at a relatively superficial level.

Meanwhile, Laurie's brother Joey investigates, accompanied by Kingsley's nephew, Kent...

Another slasherism is of course the gender-neutral name of Laurie, although compared to most of her ilk she is a relatively passive and feminised “final girl” character identified by Carol Clover in her seminal study of the form, Men, Women and Chainsaws. This is also a characterisation which it's perhaps worth considering in relation to the more active than usual defences mounted by the earlier victims, ineffective though they may have been.

Some more blatant symbolism than usual

Or, to suggest some classic US slasher rather than Italian giallo binaries, here it seems very much to be the case that active = sexual = bad girl and passive = non-sexual = good girl. While some gialli, perhaps especially in the post-Halloween era do follow this schema, there are many more examples with sexually active female protagonists when we consider the kind of characters habitually incarnated by Edwige Fenech and Susan Scott in films like The Strange Vice of Signora Wardh and Death Walks at Midnight.

If the filmmakers' identification of evil with active female sexuality – note also here the “that's disgusting” remark when one character passes another the dildo he has found in Dee Ann's apartments – is further suggested by the even more obvious than usual phallic quality of some of the weapons with which they are punished for their transgressions, the paradigmatic selection of nail gun and power drill is also unusual given the argument that the typical slasher film weapon is essentially “pre-technological”.

Likewise, there is little suggestion of any gender confusion to the maniac, motivated as he is more by a puritanical, misogynistic morallty.

Though writing, performances and direction each leave something to be desired at times, the film is better put together than its generally bad reputation would suggest, even if still resolutely on the functional side of things most of the time.

Cameron Mitchell – whose very presence establishes another connection to the giallo through his association with Bava and appearance in Blood and Black Lace – contributes a gleefully over the top performance, while some of some of the flash-frame editing is surprisingly adept.

The music is also better than many slashers of the period. While the main suspense theme, a simple piano led motif, is not up there with Halloween it is also pleasingly light on droning synthesiser noodling. The diegetic cues are also used well and, in their middle of the road blandness, providing a ironic counterpoint to the madness and mayhem as they dispassionately, anempathetically play over in a manner curiously reminiscent of Reservoir Dogs. (Or, more generically, the Italian horror films discussed in Kay Dickinson's Troubling Synthesis essay in Sleaze Artists.)

[I watched the film via the Blue Underground DVD]

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