Amanda By Night's Retro Ectero Page

Retro Ectero is a place to wax poetic about all the wonderful silly things of a past long gone by.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Toolbox Murders (1978)

The title The Toolbox Murders is now more famous because of Tobe Hooper's recent "re-imagining" of the old grindhouse flick. Not that I have anything bad to say about it. It's an amazing film that seemed to take Hooper back to his more primal instincts. And it was a bloody good time. But it's unfortunate that new-ish horror fans might not be aware of how differnt the original was. Not only that, but the original Toolbox is a damn fine film. It was awash with human emotions and even with all of the so-called brutality aside (most of which happens in the infamous first thrity minutes), Toolbox ups the ante by becoming something more. My friend, and co-reviewer, Michael Ferrari, said it best when he wrote about audiences not being prepared for what the film had to offer. Not that it was over flowing with violence, rather it's an acute character study on grief. And you'll be damned if you'll find another horror film like it, especially in todays white-washed PC cinema.

Toolbox Murders
Review by
Amanda By Night

1978's The Toolbox Murders is a surprising film. Surprising because it lives up to it's ultra-exploitive title and because it also manages to be a study on the human condition. Yeah, you heard me... this movie is all heart. Sometimes the heart is broken and other times it's just ripped from one's chest, but all kidding aside, Toolbox is an anomaly,and more importantly, it's good.

The first 1/2 hour of Toolbox is a slice and dice extravaganza. Few films can boast such a brutal bodycount in so few minutes and for once,the movie is what you think it's going to be. Then it switches gears and becomes one of the most personal slasher films in the genre. Whether it was the writers' or the director's input, Toolbox becomes a very moving and fairly realistic look at loss and grief. Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but there's way more here than meets the eye here. On the surface, Toolbox is at once brutal and ugly while maintaining a highly underappreciated look at effectives of death on those left behind. While most 70s horror would be happy just to revel in the demise of its victims,Toolbox offers up other kinds of casualties as well. Practically everyone with a major part in this movie experiences some kind of loss,and inside of this loss is where the demons and or angels come forth. For the missing girl's mother, it's just to simply keep moving, for the brother, it's to take action even if it means getting in too deep. And for the killer, it's to exact the evil from the world; an evil he believes killed his little girl.

A good portion of the film dwells on the captive and the captor. It is here that we get to the meat of the story and the killer becomes both tragic and sad. Then there's a twist and everything you were lead to think is happening and once again Toolbox spins into a yet another descent into grief.

Shot in a matter-of-fact style, anyone who saw this movie when it first released in theaters or on vhs, probably remember the infamous bathtub scene best. It's a fantastically button pushing scene, and was even discussed on 60 minutes. But there's more here than just a voluptuous nude woman fighting for her life, but of course, if that's all you want, this movie is sure to satisfy you there too! What an interesting line Toolbox walks, and seemingly with ease. One of the oddest films to come out of a decade where odd was its middle name, The Toolbox Murders is a one-of-a-kind viewing that deserves a wider, more appreciative audience.

Toolbox Murders
Review by
Michael Jonathan Ferrari

Bit by bit by bit, back in the so-called decadent 1970s, filmmaker’s intentions were undoubtedly different from today. As we all know, ultimately all films are a business, and a return-on-investment is the absolute bottom line. But when comparing the films of then to today, there is a huge difference in the way a filmmaker expresses himself within those parameters. You get the sense that most first time directors today feel the need to cram as much as possible into their first films partly out of fear of not making another film, partly to be showy and cover all their bases—ALWAYS looking to get that next big gig. Low budget filmmaking of the 1970s was a time when you could find these quirky little films that end up sneaking up on you, cramming in some interesting subtext when and where you least expect it.

While re-watching Dennis Donnelly’s The Toolbox Murders, I couldn’t help but feel like I was missing out by not being as old as I am back then, enjoying this strange little film in it’s first run in 1978. The picture came out at a time right when the Slasher film genre as we know it today was about to bust wide open with the release of John Carpenter’s Halloween, some 7 months later. Audiences in March of ‘78 walked into the film because of it’s exploitation-esque title expecting some blood and guts, and they walked out with exactly that and something else more curious... Donnelly, an Episodic TV show veteran, crafts a film that always plays with your expectations. The first half hour of the film piles on several murders, seemingly one after the other after the other. Your mind can’t help but wonder if the film is just going to be scene after scene of pointless mayhem, and then suddenly the violence stops and the typical sleuthing aspect of slasher films kicks in. It is also at that point where the film shifts gears completely. The killer is quickly revealed and becomes more of the focus of the story and we as the audience are held captive, much like Pamela Ferdin’s prophetically named final girl Laurie, and in the film’s greatest and most shocking scene... we are simply forced to sympathize with and understand his intentions, while fearing for Laurie’s life.

Discussing this picture with others I often hear that at this point the film is mostly lost on them. While I will agree that it slows down tremendously, I don’t believe at fault to the film. It’s at this point where the film is most alive. Films nowadays make it bit more fashionable to sympathize and accept villains in more substantial roles. Rob Zombie has certainly made a career of it. Recently Kevin Costner got his own chance to shine in Mr. Brooks playing the title character’s sympathetic serial killer role. TV has it’s fare share of it as well, most notably, Showtime’s Dexter. Though back in 1978, most mainstream films stayed away from the concept. It was in rare exceptions, usually in low-budget films, where the despised (usually) obscured madman got his chance to unleash his anguish through the simple act of communicating verbally with another. Some sort of personal tragedy is the jumping point for this macabre bunch, and cold-blooded, calculated murder is almost only their true way of expressing their anxieties.

The Toolbox Murders ends up being more than just a wallow into a man’s psyche as the film’s pace picks up and a little twist is thrown in for good measure. The film’s final scene is decidedly very 70's in it’s refusal to end on a false upbeat note. You walk away feeling more than you thought you would for characters in a film of its ilk. I personally wondered where things went wrong starting in the 80's as films depreciated with each year, characters in the genre increasingly became less dimensional and more annoying than anything else. Risk seemed to be something that comes up a lot. As the years go on, more and more films play to the audience instead of against it. Studios, Producers, Writers and Directors, well-established or not, seem to want to impress as many as possible instead of intrigue the few who actually get that humans even when presented in art, can be complex and not summed up in a 5 to 7 word sentence.

Recently I saw a friend of a friend’s “independent” film that boasted an all-star cast of actors desperately trying to prove they can act and play “dark” and more complex-than-usual characters. You know, a notch above cardboard cut-outs. It was depressing and a reminder that honesty is the one thing left out of most movies today. Once and awhile you’ll see that honesty, and it’s those films I welcome with open arms. To me, instead of calling a decade like the 70s “The Golden Age” I’d rather call the occasional good, honest film to come out of any given decade...golden.

The Toolbox Murders is exploitation with that golden something extra, it’s a great little film that reminds us that the only real way to enjoy films, especially those of a formula, is to keep an open mind and hopefully you’ll find a film that surprises you once in awhile by unexpectedly taking you on your journey a little off-road..You know, that wacky and weird place where you’d less suspect before arriving at your final destination. It’s a groovy thing.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Le Freak, C'est Chic: Jason's Legacy

Mmmm, that bag is hawt.

There's no questioning my fascination by the Idiot Man Child in slasher cinema. A modern day freak shows that you don't have to witness in person, the idea of a mutated man (or woman as in the case with Screams of a Winters Night), is pretty hard to resist. And of course as we all know, Jason from the Friday the 13th series set the bar high for these mutated villians. But there was a map even before him. Usually, the IMC in question raised himself in the wild, bitter and bent on avenging whatever ill gotten life it was forced to live. The IMC normally took out his aggression on the innocent and more often than not, they were a vacationing group of teens whose sole purpose was to get drunk and laid. Good looking and moderately intelligent (at least by the IMC's standards), these victims represent what the IMC lost when another group burned down his forest, mistakenly killed his parents, or whatever other tragedy that might befall an IMC-to-be.

In Jason's case, the legend kind of wraps itself into several little legends - the most famous being that he supposedly drowned whilst two counselors were off playing the naked pretzel instead of watching him. Unfortunately, that meant whatever oedipal relationship Mrs. Vorhees had begun to build with Jason soon vanished before her very eyes. In a shocking turn of events, she kept the blood shed going as she stalks new counselors at the Camp where her boy perished. To this day, Mrs. Vorhees is the only female killer tied into any successful franchised slasher.

But half way through Part II, one begins to realize that there is more to the puzzle then originally spoken about. Ginny (Amy Steel, the greatest heroine in the Friday series), wonders if perhaps Jason was still alive and living in the wild, "Crying for the return of his mother". Kind of nightmarish, huh? I mean, imagine a deformed, mentally retarded kid who saw his mom get her head lopped off? If Jason didn't have any hatred towards peppy teens, that was sure to change.

And what came about from Ginny's innocent theory was a cavalcade of IMC wanna-bes. I mean, if we can't be Madonna, then we can still dress like her, right? Same goes for the IMC. It’s not like Jason was the first idiot killer to splash across the silver screen, but I’d like to think that he’s to thank for the dozens of films that pulled out the IMC card (albeit, to varying levels of success). Here are the five best and five worst rip-offs to enjoy. My only criteria for this list was that is should take place in the forest (or at least in some isolated area) and the killer should be stupid as hell. Hey, he is an Idiot-Man-Child right? I hope this list will spark a a little love for (as Paul so astutely said in Part II), "That Friday the 13th".

Love Songs for the Retarded (These are good!):

House on Sorority Row (1983) – OK, so I bent the rules on my first pick. Yeah, there’s no forest, but damn, this movie just never talked about enough. Housemother Mrs. Slater gives birth to a crazed bastard (literally) and when Mrs. Slater supposedly dies in a practical joke gone wrong, her son puts major ‘tardo foot to ass. Sumptuous and suspenseful, House is one of the best takes on the IMC.

Humongous (1982) – A strange but enjoyable horror movie, Humongous features a really big IMC and he does not like strangers. What makes this movie is the minimalism of it all. Humongous just is. No ifs ands or buts and it’s scary. Practically unheard of outside of slasher circles, this one is an underrated gem of a movie. Big, stupid killers RULE!

The Prey (1984) – I was conflicted about putting this on the best list. I know it’s not a very good movie, by technical (or storyline or acting or anything) standards, but there’s something so creepy about this movie. From the crazy killer gypsy (whose family died when someone accidentally set fire to the entire forest!) to that weird rock that overlooks the victims. The violence is well played out and although there is little more than a few lines of dialog and lots and lots of nature footage, this movie gets you where it counts.

The Unseen (1981) – OK, I’m not sure which came first – this or Friday part II, but the IMC on display here is just too awesome to ignore. I mean, is that really Flounder (Steven Furst) from Animal House in diapers?!? Well, yes it is! A wonderfully obtuse movie with the late, great Sidney Lassick as dear old dad and Ringo’s wife Barbara Bach as the wide-eyed Final Girl help give the proceedings a sense of class. This movie goes for sympathy, and sometimes it gets it. Cool flick.

Wrong Turn (2003) – Dude, this movie is great. Imagine my surprise when the post self-referential horror craze was going out the window and this little straight-faced-old-school slasher put bigger budgeted Hollywood films to shame. And it was a shame. This movie tanked big time, although it spawned a sequel which was released earlier this year. And we get three IMC’s instead of the usual one! One could argue that this movie leans more towards the X-Files episode “Home”, but there’s just too much killing to not give credit where credit is due. An excellent throwback with lots of neat little references (I caught one for the Prey actually!), this is a must for those who like their IMCs knee deep in mud and guts!

Let’s Get Retarded (These are so-bad-they’re-good!):

Blood Tracks (1985) – OK, this movie is bizarre and confused, but features some fun glam rock, a lot of chicks with mullets and lots and lots of people being killed! Forty years after a woman and her children flee to an abandoned factory, a rock band encroaches on utopia to film the best music video ever! Well, if you’ve seen The Hills Have Eyes, you have a general idea that these mutated IMCs are going to stay hidden, no matter what. Don’t expect to get scared though. Unlike Papa Jupe and his clan, the scariest thing about this family is their frostbitten faces. Now explain it to me again why the family insists on living in an ice cold abandoned factory when there is a nice warm cabin right down the way? Bad, clean fun.

Don’t Go in the Woods… Alone (1982) – And whatever you do, don’t watch this movie alone either! It’s something you NEED to share with others. A recluse who looks like he got too blitzed on Mardi Gras is keeping the forest clean by wiping out any hikers who happen by. Even those in wheelchairs! Now, why would anyone in a wheelchair be hiking, you ask? Puh-leeze, logic under such circumstances is just going to upset you. Code Red recently released this movie on DVD with director commentary and the lovely James Bryan (I’ve met him and he is absolutely awesome) explains where it all went wrong.

Hills Have Eyes Part II (1985) – Oh. My. God. This movie is nothing like the sinister original, although a good portion of the sequel is filled with flashbacks from it. So many, in fact, that the dog even has one! When he goes “Aarf” and the screen starts to go all wavy, it’s totally awesome. What this movie does have though, is a nice pace and it stays interesting, even if the story and the characters are really stupid. So points to Wes for at least keeping our attention.

Memorial Valley Massacre (1988) – Wow. That’s really all one can say about this one. It’s one of those movies that is never really sure if it’s playing it for scares or laughs. When that happens, it usually succeed at neither and this movie is certainly one ponderous little mess. The IMC in question though is freakin’ hee-larious. I mean, truly. He’s all loin-clothed out and has a super duper mullet to boot. Now that’s WHITE HOT.

The Night Brings Charlie (1990) – A last and utterly futile attempt to make a decent IMC slasher, this movie is mostly forgettable except for the fact that killer just may be the local disfigured tree surgeon! No joke, and any movie with a disfigured tree surgeon needs to be on a list for something, right? I mean, it’s a movie full of firsts. Still, it’s kind of let down and it also ushers in the new age of direct to video slashers that took over video store shelves in the 90s. But yeah, an IMC by any other name would smell just as sweet.

"Happy Fridy the 13th, guys!"