His “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” the target of a recent remake, vet horror helmer Tobe Hooper returns the favor to another ’70s benchmark slaughterfest, Dennis Donnelly’s “Toolbox Murders.” More a revisit than a remake of the no-frills original about a serial killer using different handyman devices, Hooper’s version gives the yarn a tighter structure and plays it more like a grisly, but enjoyable, horror whodunit. Pic is skedded for Lions Gate release in U.S. Respectable B.O. looks likely, with a deservedly healthy afterlife on ancillary.
Beginning title card states some of those whose dreams are unfulfilled in Hollywood return to their small-town oblivion, while others simply disappear. Though film’s first victim is, typically, a beautiful blonde actress who receives the rough end of a claw hammer, one can draw parallels with Hooper’s own meandering, now semi-moribund career and his inability to transcend cult status.
Newlywed couple, teacher Nell (Angela Bettis) and medical intern Steve (Brent Roam), recently moved into the art deco apartment building Lusman Arms, where several murders have occurred. The decrepit building houses numerous poor tenants, giving the narrative plenty of fuel for potential victims and red herrings.
While Steve is busy at the hospital, Nell deals with cheapskate building manager Byron McLieb (Greg Travis, in a splendidly sleazy turn), who keeps trying to write off the building’s failings (poor plumbing, high body count) as part of its historic charm. Quick-tempered Byron is accompanied by the prime suspect, mop-topped, socially inept and emotionally retarded Ned (co-scripter Adam Gierasch), the apartment building’s leering handyman who displays cannibalistic tendencies.
Other tenants include a geeky teenager who has webcam access to other apartments, wannabe thesps and an aspiring hippie chick musician (Sarah Dowling). Dowling co-wrote her own song, “Surrealistic Summer,” which contains the delightfully vapid lyric “As I sit here slowly waiting/I feel just like a Dali painting.”
Tenant with the best handle on the building’s dangers is sage-like bit player Chas “Jazz” Rooker (veteran TV and character actor Rance Howard). Having resided with decades worth of movie wannabes, “Jazz” befriends the increasingly anxious Nell.
After two more women are killed (nail gun, power drill), Nell discovers a secret passageway that runs throughout the building.
Pic gleefully quotes from “Psycho,” “The Perils of Pauline” and even references “Texas Chain Saw,” underlining the idea that the movie is a love/hate letter to Hollywood. “Toolbox” may not renew the splatter genre in any significant way, but the chills and kills prove Hooper, when armed with the right script, can still tighten the fright screws.
Savvy scenario by Jace Anderson and Gierasch shows signs of sly erudition, with artful quotations from T.S. Eliot and others. Likewise, the demonic design of the Lusman towers may even be a veiled reference to the alleged occultism employed by deco architects Walter Burley Griffin and wife Marion Mahoney.
Script allows thesps room for deeper characterization and empathy than is customary with the splatter genre, with the actors decisively nailing their roles. On screen more than anyone else, Bettis is solid as Nell. Soundtrack is dominated by screaming heavy-metal guitar, and tech credits keep the movie running like a well-oiled machine.