The VRAs – The Toolbox Murders (1978)

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This is our ongoing series about films that were banned by the British government, using the Video Recordings Act of 1984. You have the right-wing gutter press and a few Christian pressure groups to thank for these films becoming more famous than they had any right to be (in all but a few cases), and the fact they’ve now virtually all been re-released, uncut, while the law remains in place, tells you more about moral panics than it does about the content of the films. See the VRAs “mission statement” here.

Cameron Mitchell could have an entire site devoted to his terrible films. Look at ’em, one can only assume he had some excellent blackmail material on some casting directors, while simultaneously having the worst agent ever. “The Toolbox Murders” is his only dalliance with the world of video nasties, though, so let’s see if he made the right choice with this one.

After seeing, in flashback, a corpse which is very visibly breathing (seriously, hold your breath for three seconds) we then spend most of the first half an hour in the company of a murderer, shot from angles which don’t reveal his face until he puts on a ski mask. He’s recognised by the first woman, who thinks he’s come to repair something in the house – although he’s the world’s most stylish DIY guy, in his leather coat and pressed trousers. He appears to be trying out different methods of murder as he makes his way through the apartment building – there’s a drill, a hammer, a screwdriver and a nailgun. He doesn’t seem particularly worried about capture, and I must admit I like a nice confident serial killer. He’s pretty calm about the whole thing, allowing several of the women to almost get away when he could have killed them while they were distracted.

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In between his two trips to the building, we’re introduced to Laurie, who you’d think would be the heroine of the film (the name sounds like a reference to Jamie Lee Curtis’ character from “Halloween”, released a few years previously). She’s a smart teenager who lives in the buildings where the murders are taking place, so when she’s captured by the killer a little before the halfway point and then not seen again til near the end, it’s a bit surprising. It’s Laurie’s brother Joey, along with Kent, who do the bulk of the work in the middle portion of the film – Kent is the nephew of the building superintendent, Vance (Mitchell).

Alongside some of the worst music ever used on film, we see a fairly substantial gay subtext to the friendship between Joey and Kent – they find a vibrator and their attitude to the tool of female pleasure, as opposed to their attitude to the gallons of blood in the room they’re in, is telling; and the scene where one kneels down and the camera makes his head appear a lot closer to the other’s crotch than it really is are the most obvious, but it’s there in spades. The identity of the killer, fairly clear before, is discovered by Kent first, then Joey (the police investigation, which we spend a fair bit of time with, is entirely irrelevant to the denouement) but I won’t spoil the end by telling you who kills who and what rather odd character choices are made.

It’s a film of three parts – toolbox murders, Joey and Kent’s investigation, and the killer with Laurie – their scene together is so long, and so boring, that it gave rise to a theory. This feels like it was designed for drive-in theatres: the killings are all at the beginning, when people are still buying popcorn and getting comfortable, but by the half-hour point they’re ready to start having sex, or whatever it is people did at drive-ins, so the film stops being interesting, realising it’s just background noise at this point. A few murders at the end too when people are cuddled up, job done.

First and foremost, it’s not very good. Cameron Mitchell as the murderer (there, I spoiled it, seriously if you’re watching a 35 year old film you need to expect this to happen) has a classic killer motivation of cleaning up the streets, with the added bonus twist of wanting a replacement daughter (the corpse we see at the beginning is hers, she died in a car accident). HIs nephew Kent is suitably creepy too, and there’s interesting stuff in here, just surrounded by so much padding.

The ending is worth a mention – as the sole survivor walks across a deserted parking lot, we get an intertitle saying this is based on a true story, which happened in 1967. It seems the internet is silent on the issue, and I’m guessing this was done to allow them to structure the film in an odd way (and have the police in there to make up the numbers) and is loosely based at best. Then, after the end credits, someone really liked that awful music because it plays over a blank screen for the best part of a minute before the film stops.

How about its status as a video nasty? I can only assume they really didn’t like any reference to non-traditional murder devices – “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” has very little actual blood on screen and is all atmosphere; “Driller Killer” is more about the horrible effects living in the scummy mess that was New York in the late 70s has on a person’s mind; and “The Toolbox Murders”, while it undoubtedly has some gory sections, seems to have qualified for the list by association more than anything else.

Rating: thumbs down, but only by a little

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4 thoughts on “The VRAs – The Toolbox Murders (1978)

  1. Pingback: The VRAs |

  2. Pingback: Raw Force (1982) |

  3. Pingback: Youtube Film Club: Final Exam (1981) |

  4. Pingback: Deadly Prey (1987) |

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