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Film / The Toolbox Murders

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Beware The Blank.

Bit by bit... by bit, he carved a nightmare!
1978 Tagline

The Toolbox Murders is a slasher-esque film released in 1978.

Set in California in 1967, the film follows Vance Kingsley (Cameron Mitchell), an apartment complex owner who, several months prior to the events of the film, lost his teenage daughter Kathy in a car wreck, a tragedy which sent him spiraling into seclusion and a deep depression, which eventually led to religious mania. Convinced that God took his daughter due to her purity, and that it is ultimately a Crapsack World, Vance dons a trenchcoat, leather gloves and a ski mask and embarks on a killing spree through his apartments, gruesomely murdering female tenants who he views as "unsavory" and deserving of punishment with the assorted nasty contents of a toolbox, such as a drill, hammer, screwdriver and nail gun.

Midway through his rampage, Vance becomes enamored with fifteen year-old Laurie Ballard, a reserved and studious girl who lives in an apartment with her mother Joanne, and older brother Joey. Soon enough, Vance abducts Laurie, and holds her captive in his daughter's old bedroom, which resembles a little girl's. As Vance grows increasingly psychotic, and comes to believe Laurie really is his dead daughter, Joey begins to search for his sister, after the police prove unreliable in both their investigation of the murders, and Laurie's disappearance. Helping Joey out is Vance's somewhat odd nephew, Kent, who has been hired by his uncle to help with all the repairs and clean up needed around the apartments in the aftermath of Vance's nightly forays.

The film had a remake, simply titled Toolbox Murders and directed by Tobe Hooper of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) fame, in 2004. Besides being set in an apartment complex and having an antagonist who kills with the contents of a toolbox, it was largely In Name Only, and went as far as featuring supernatural elements. After simmering in Development Hell for several years a sequel entitled Coffin Baby was released in 2013.

As a point of trivia, Stephen King has mentioned the original is one of his favorite horror films.

The original film provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Anachronism Stew: Although the film is set in 1967, most of the vehicles in it are from the 1970s, according to the Internet Movie Cars Database.
  • Babies Ever After: The epilogue mentions Laurie married, settled down in San Fernando Valley, and had one child in 1975.
  • Bloodbath Villain Origin: In the span of a few minutes, Vance commits a gory triple homicide.
  • Blonde, Brunette, Redhead: The initial victims; Mrs. Andrews and Deborah are blond, Maria is brunette, and Dee Ann is the redhead.
  • Blood-Splattered Innocents: Maria getting covered in Deborah's blood, right before she's attacked.
  • Bloody Handprints: Mrs. Andrews leaves them all over the place after being drilled in the arm.
  • Break the Cutie: The epilogue states that due to the events of the film, Laurie spent at least three years in a mental institution.
  • Cat Scare: Some dark clothing hanging in the shower, behind a translucent curtain, plus an actual cat yowling and hopping out as Joey and Kent stop by Vance's garage.
  • Caught with Your Pants Down: In the film's most infamous sequence, Vance walks in on Dee Ann masturbating in the tub.
  • Chase Scene: Vance going after the naked Dee Ann in her apartment.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Kent stabs Vance with the knife he had earlier used to make a sandwich, while Laurie kills Kent with the pair of scissors he used to cut her bonds.
  • The Coroner: He has the responsibility of plucking the nails deeply embedded in Dee Ann out.
  • Deadly Distant Finale: The epilogue mentions Joanne died in a car accident in 1974.
  • Dead Person Impersonation: Laurie tries to manipulate Vance by pretending to be Kathy, but it doesn't really do any good.
  • Death by Falling Over: The death of Vance's daughter, Kathy. She apparently crashed her car, but from what we're shown, it just looks like she fell out of a stationary one and cracked her head on the pavement.
  • "Eureka!" Moment: Joey concludes Vance is the killer when he realizes he would know the area, the habits of the tenants, and would have no trouble getting inside their apartments.
  • Event Title: The Toolbox Murders
  • Evil vs. Evil: By the end, Vance and Kent turn on each other. Kent wins, stabbing Vance in the gut.
  • Fan Disservice: Dee Ann is still naked when Vance attacks her.
  • Fanservice: We see Deborah's breasts, and Dee Ann masturbating.
  • Flashback Echo: Used to show the ways Dee Ann's death mirrors Kathy's.
  • Flashback Effects: Flashbacks to Kathy's death are tinted piss yellow.
  • Freudian Excuse: Kathy dying drove Vance to insanity and religious mania.
  • Giallo: The film seems somewhat inspired by these, going as far as having Vance wear black leather gloves during his murders.
  • Grievous Bottley Harm: Mrs. Andrews tries defending herself with a broken bottle, but Vance easily disarms her.
  • Groin Attack: Vance gets a knee to the crotch, courtesy of Maria.
  • Halfway Plot Switch: It starts off slasher-esque, then becomes a thriller and character study of sorts, showcasing Vance's mental decline while Joey searches for him.
  • Hope Spot: Kent sneaks into Vance's yard, looks in the window of the room where Kathy is being held, but seemingly fails to spot her. It eventually turns out he knew what Vance was doing, anyway.
  • Kissing Cousins: Kent and Kathy, who apparently had sex whenever the chance to arose.
  • Missing White Woman Syndrome: Averted. The police don't initially suspect Laurie was kidnapped, or that her disappearance really had anything to do with the murders.
  • Motive Rant: Vance explains to Laurie that he views the women he murders as filthy degenerates who deserve punishment for their transgressions, also telling her that he is ultimately making the world a better place by killing them.
  • Mundane Made Awesome: While generic radio music plays over most of the murders, a creepy suspenseful score is used for several completely mundane scenes.
  • Porn Stash: Deborah has a large number of pornographic magazines... which appear to only feature naked women.
  • Replacement Goldfish: Vance abducts and holds Laurie captive because she reminds him of Kathy.
  • The Reveal: Kent has seemingly known all along what Vance has been up to, and had an incestous relationship with Kathy.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: Averted. The film was not created to capitalize on the crimes of the "Tool Box Killers," which in fact took place the year after it was released.
  • Sinister Minister: Vance listens to a ranty, fire, brimstone and damnation-type on his car radio in the opening.
  • The '60s: While the film was made in The '70s, the epilogue reveals it actually took place in 1967.
  • Tap on the Head: Vance is quite adept at knocking people out with a single blow.
  • Token Minority: Maria, and the elderly black couple who discover the bodies of the first three victims.
  • Too Dumb to Live: None of the victims really put up any kind of struggle, try to escape, or even scream too much.
  • Trailers Always Lie: It mentions victims not actually featured in the film.

The remake provides examples of the following tropes:

  • The Cavalry: After discovering Coffin Baby is not dead, Officers Stone and Clark track him down and burst into Nell's apartment Just in Time to shoot him out the window.
  • Chewing the Scenery: Byron, when Coffin Baby stabs him in the back with a pair of bolt cutters.
  • Cult: The Talman Lunar Cult, which building founder Jack Lusman was associated with.
  • Enemy Rising Behind: Right before Saffron's death. So subtle you probably won't notice it at first.
  • Expy: Coffin Baby kinda looks like a live-action version of the Rat King.
  • Everyone Is a Suspect: Ned being the most obvious Red Herring.
  • Evil Elevator: It's kind of a piece of crap, and crushes Hudson's body when Nell heads to the top floor after Coffin Baby drags him through the maintenance hatch.
  • Evil Phone: On random occasions, they make weird noises.
  • Eyes Open: Despite being pumped full of nails, Saffron turns out to be somehow still alive... for a little while, at least.
  • Facial Horror: Luis getting his face melted off with lye.
  • Fingore, Impaled Palm: Coffin Baby really went to work on Saffron with that nail gun. Later, Luis gets a much bigger nail through the hand.
  • Flashback: Nell has one to her father's funeral.
  • Giallo: Like the original, the film seems to take some inspiration from them.
  • Girly Run: Nell in one scene, where she's going down a hall.
  • Half the Man He Used to Be: A female corpse that is completely split in half is found in Coffin Baby's lair.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Literally. Coffin Baby falls from a window after being shot and is seen hanging from the cord he tried to strangle Nell with. And then it's implied that he survived.
  • Hollywood Acid: Subverted: Coffin Baby uses lye (A base) to melt Luis' face off.
  • Improbable Aiming Skills: Unlike in the original, Coffin Baby doesn't have the excuse of using that nail gun at close range.
  • Improvised Weapon: Daisy tries to fight Coffin Baby off with a pair of scissors, but he easily knocks them from her grasp.
  • Magitek: The leader of the Talman Lunar Cult experimented with it.
  • Malevolent Masked Men: Outside of it being a Mythology Gag, Coffin Baby has discernable reason for wearing that ski mask.
  • The Man They Couldn't Hang: Coffin Baby is shot out a window, and is hung by a lamp cord that got wrapped around his neck while struggling with Nell. He proceeds to nonchalantly free himself.
  • Mirror Scare: It looks like they're setting this up, only for Coffin Baby to come crashing through a window instead.
  • Nail 'Em: Saffron gets attacked with a nail gun, and is even nailed to the ceiling with it.
  • Right Through the Wall: "Jesus, these walls are cardboard."
  • Room Full of Crazy: One of Coffin Baby's secret rooms is plastered with old newspapers, and even includes false windows showcasing images of Hollywood circa the 1930's.
  • Sequel Hook: Along with Coffin Baby escaping, a lot is left frustratingly vague and unexplained.
  • Tongue Trauma: Along with taking her teeth, it looks like Coffin Baby also removed Saffron's tongue.
  • Trapdoor: Turns out an entrance to Coffin Baby's lair is one on the roof.
  • The Unintelligible: Coffin Baby, who only lets out pained-sounding moans and yells.
  • The Undead: According to Chas, Coffin Baby was literally born dead, clawing his way out of his buried (hence the name) mother's womb.
  • Vomit Indiscretion Shot: Byron, when some of Coffin Baby's old victims are found.