In just a few weeks, Tobe Hooper will have been gone one year. Maybe the internet will fill will pieces memorializing him in the coming days, the way it did in the days following his passing. I somehow suspect not. Among his peers in the original “Masters of Horror,” Hooper gets talked about the least; outside of praise for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, he’s rarely discussed in terms that aren’t critical or surrounded by controversy.
I know I’m still pretty new here at Bloody Disgusting, but here are two things you should know about me: 1) Tobe Hooper is my favorite director. 2) Tobe Hooper movies are my favorite thing to write about. As the kids say, don’t @ me. So with the one-year anniversary of his death coming up, I wanted to take the opportunity to shine a light on one of his most underrated films and probably his last best work: the 2004 remake of Toolbox Murders. It’s a back-to-his-roots swerve for Hooper, one which recalls the grittiness of his early classic while still feeling totally contemporary in 2004. It’s a movie that proves Tobe Hooper was still relevant. He hadn’t lost his fastball.
A remake of 1978 movie of the same name (well, almost; the remake drops the “The”), Toolbox Murders casts Angela Bettis (of May and The Woman fame) as Nell, who has just moved into a new apartment building with her husband Steven (Brent Roam). He works at the hospital and is gone a lot, leaving Nell to fend for herself among the more colorful and interesting characters who inhabit their building – characters who, it just so happens, are being brutally murdered by a killer known as Coffin Baby (Christopher Doyle). With no one to believe her after a few false alarms and the building’s population quickly dwindling, Nell has to fight back or become Coffin Baby’s next victim.
The 2000s were lousy with remakes, with a ton of horror movies getting updates from the known classics (Friday the 13th, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) to slightly more obscure titles known primarily inside horror geek circles (The House on Sorority Row, Night of the Demons, Prom Night). Toolbox Murders certainly qualifies as the latter, but that isn’t what makes it unique. No, what’s special about this one is that it’s one of the few 2000s remakes to be directed by an established auteur – a “Master of Horror,” no less. The typical formula for these remakes was that a former music video or commercial director would be hired to give the new versions a slick, glossy polish, which almost never worked. That’s not the approach Tobe Hooper brings to his take on Toolbox Murders, instead retaining the grit and grime of the original film while still updating the aesthetic for contemporary audiences. Sure, it’s the same nausea green/pee yellow color palette that we now associate with a lot of mid-2000s torture porn titles, but Toolbox Murders was released either before or at the same time as these other movies. It’s not chasing the look of those films; if anything, it helped cement that aesthetic.
The whole “toolbox” conceit is a good gimmick for a slasher movie, as it builds in a variety of different kills with a variety of different weapons. Screenwriters Adam Gierasch and Jace Anderson (filmmakers themselves and frequent collaborators of Tobe Hooper, having also written Mortuary and Crocodile) are clever in the way that they retain that conceit but change almost everything else about the original movie, creating a new mythology and inventing the “Coffin Baby” character around which they build this new story. There’s a much greater emphasis on character in the remake, too – not just the colorful supporting players (including Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Juliet Landau, Rance Howard, Greg Travis, and even Gierasch himself as a creepy maintenance man), but especially Bettis’ Nell, a woman who’s already feeling isolated and alone in a new building and can’t decide if she’s losing her mind or if something terrible really is going on. That we already know the truth only makes her more sympathetic, her situation more harrowing.
Hooper also leans hard into the violence here, making Toolbox Murders one of the most brutal horror movies of the 2000s outside of the French extremist movement. For a director whose breakout film features almost no onscreen bloodshed (this despite its reputation for being graphic and gory), Hooper sure goes hard on the kills, almost as if to show those critics of Texas Chainsaw that he knows damn well how to make an insanely violent movie when he wants to and here’s what it looks like. Characters are dispatched with hammers and nail guns and drills and saws to the head and are crushed in a vice before being covered in lye. Death never comes quickly or easily in the movie, with at least one victim begging to be killed just to end his suffering. It’s pretty rough stuff, but Hooper exhibits total confidence in the movie’s ugliness. Neither he nor the movie compromises.
It’s not just the intensity or how well he stages the kills that make Toolbox Murders the director’s last best movie, but also the way that it fits into his overall filmography by exploring some of his pet themes. Like most Tobe Hooper movies, this one concerns itself with the trope of “the Bad Place” (originally codified by Stephen King in his book Danse Macabre). It appears across his work, whether it’s the Sawyer house in Texas Chain Saw, the backyard in Invaders from Mars, the mortuary in Mortuary or the funhouse in The Funhouse. Never one to do things by half measures, Hooper likes to take this idea a few steps further so that we get a Bad Place within the Bad Place: the underground tunnels beneath the backyard in Invaders, the underground tunnels beneath the abandoned park in Texas Chainsaw Part 2, the bowels of the Funhouse, etc. In Toolbox Murders, it’s not just the building that acts as the bad place: it’s the basement and within the walls and a literal townhouse within the building (a bad place inside a bad place) and all of the secret places upon which Nell stumbles that are littered with the corpses of Coffin Baby’s victims; skeletons, another Hooper favorite. Tobe Hooper movies tend to reflect a descent into madness, and the way he layers these ‘places within places’ so that characters must continually go further into the bad thing reflects precisely that descent. The deeper they go, the crazier things get. That’s certainly true of Toolbox Murders.
But there are also economic anxieties that work their way into the movie, too, which Hooper has been exploring dating back to the original Texas Chain Saw. The characters in Hooper movies often find themselves in terrible, even deadly, situations by necessity. The Sawyers become murderous cannibals because the slaughterhouse was closed thanks to industrial “progress.” The employees of Gartley’s Blue Ribbon Laundry Service in The Mangler continue to risk the terrible conditions and possible death not because they love the job but because they need the work. No one is really living at the Lusman Arms in Toolbox Murders because it’s their first choice, but rather because it’s what they can afford. All of the characters in the movie are trying to get by, from the very first character we meet (played by Sheri Moon Zombie in her only non-Rob Zombie acting role), whose credit card is declined buying cigarettes, to Nell and Steve, who are trying to get by until he’s done with his internship and can get a job as a doctor. The building is in disrepair, the electricity only sometimes works, and there’s a killer on the loose, but the tenants are trapped – not physically, but by lack of opportunity.
There’s a kind of circular beauty to Tobe Hooper directing the remake of Toolbox Murders, as the filmmakers behind the original were reportedly inspired to make their film after seeing the success of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. After several decades and a rocky career, he comes back to direct the remake and improves upon the original in every single way. While it can’t touch the brilliance of Texas Chain Saw, Toolbox Murders is probably the Hooper film that’s closest in spirit, in intensity, in claustrophobic tone, and in returning to a realism he had long since abandoned in favor of expressionism and absurdity. If you’ve never seen it, please use the anniversary of his passing as your excuse to check it out.
Both the movie and Tobe Hooper are worth it.