In an age of “re-imaginnings” and movies “inspired by” older, better films, the concept of a remake “in name only” of a slasher classic is understandably approached with caution. However, when the one doing the “remaking” is horror legend Tobe Hooper (“Texas Chainsaw Massacre”) the expectations become markedly higher. Add to the mix fledgeling scream queen Angela Bettis (“May”) and you have what could be masterpiece of seedy indie horror.
Set in the dilapidated Lusman Arms apartments, a decaying relic of old Hollywood, rooms are still being rented as renovations occupy most of the building. Nell (Angela Bettis) and Steven Burrows (Brent Roam), a teacher and doctor respectively, have just moved in and almost immediately regret their decision. On top of the repairs, the seedy manager, the creepy handyman and an assortment of loud and strange fellow tenants, there is also the unfortunately death of a construction worker to colour their impression of the place. Lacking the cash to move again, they agree to stay until Steven finishes his residency rotation at a local hospital, leaving Nell alone within the paper thin walls to make the best of her situation.
Prompted by an encounter with the Lusman’s longest surviving occupant, Chas (Rance Howard) and the disappearance of the one friend she manages to make (Juliet Landau, Drusilla from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”), Nell decides to do some investigating into the history of the building. Apparently the Lusman has a history of mistreating construction workers, and it turns out the original owner was a devotee of the black arts. This is where the film switches gears and a number of fantastical elements are introduced, but once we start to learn more about the building the gore factor ratchets up a notch.
Left in the hands of a lesser director, “Toolbox Murders” could have been a downright stupid haunted house with gore movie. But Hooper’s keen eye for creeping shadows and great art direction by Steven R. Miller give it an atmospheric punch. The scenes of violence manage to be both graphic and chilling, lending weight to an otherwise silly sounding plot. Sadly, although entertaining, the film never quite lives up to expectations. The mix of black humour, supernatural mystery and straight up slasher horror never completely mesh and you can’t helping thinking that things would have been better if they’d just stuck to a subgenre.
There are good performances, Bettis and Roam in particular, and the killer is a grotesque and threatening presence, something often lacking in low budget horror. But, a couple too many contrivances, likely thrown in to add some coherence to the plot damage the film’s credibility and undermine the chills that Hooper manages to develop.
Who knows? Maybe the original script does bring it all back together. Sadly we’ll never know and are left instead with a fun but flawed hint of what we know Hooper is capable of.