What with us watching the original Toolbox a couple of weeks ago, and with the new version gracing the top 20 rental chart at my local Blockbuster, it felt the time was right to bring Tobe Hooper's Toolbox Murders remake to Zombie Club. Rawshark and I (Jim - hello there...) had seen this at last years Frightfest and totally disagreed over the movie's quality, so it was going to be interesting to see how this one padded out.
Accompanying Toolbox Murders had to be Lucky McGee's wonderful tale of unrequited love, May, mainly because they share the same beautiful star and this evening's namesake, Angela Bettis. It'd be a change of pace certainly, but you can't watch Italian zombie gut-munchers or bad jumper 80s day-glow romps every week...
Tonight's entertainment is bought to you by Jim in association with the Angela Bettis gets thinner every day organisation.
Plot May looks for love. She finds it, sort of.
Jim Since it came out back in 2002, I'd had my eye on this movie. I read the buzz, watched it miss the cinema in the UK and head straight to video. Then I watched it slip off the shelf and into the ex-rental bin, then from said bin to my shelf at home, where it stayed for months and months waiting for an evening when I'd be 'in the mood' to watch something like I knew May was going to be, i.e. slow and not as action packed as I prefer (yes, I am fickle). Imagine my surprise then, and embarrassment almost, when I finally watched this little gem and discovered that it's quite possibly the best little movie that I'd never seen - I guess you learn something new every day.
As a child, May had very few friends - she was born with a very lazy eye, had to wear a patch most of the time and, well, you know how spiteful kids can be. Growing up things were similar - potential friends bailed as soon as they saw that wonky eye of hers - and as a grown-up she only really has one friend. At an early birthday (recalled to us through that popular cinematic tool - the flashback) her mother said to her "If you can't find a friend, make one" and gave her a creepy doll in a glass case. This is the friend I was talking about. Yes, she talks to it. Yes, it's creepy.
However, the movie starts with May getting a set of contacts which fix her lazy eye and - for the first time ever - she looks... normal, beautiful even. But is May ready for normal life? How does she juggle her new friends with her old, err, one? And does May actually like people or is she just into bits of people? I mean, Adam (Jeremy Sisto) does have beautiful hands and Polly (Anna Faris) indeed has a beautiful neck but is the rest of them any good? It's a shame you can't just take the best bits of the people you like and make a new one...
A complete change from the Zombie Club norm, May was something of a revelation ("It's like a proper, proper film" - Zomblee). The world in which May lives could almost be called Alt-America - it's trashy middle-America but with an alt-rock soundtrack (Pixies, Breeders, you know...) and without the clichéd white picket fence. It's the sort of place where anything goes on Halloween night ("That was a big leg!" - Zomblee) and where super-sexy movie lesbians cheerleaders live next door ("They're never like that in real life!" - Rawshark). And it's the sort of place where cute veterinary nurses can hide their dead cling-wrapped cat in the freezer, only for a punk with really big hair to discover it and accuse her of being crazy ("coming from a guy who's hair that makes him look like a cock!" - Rawshark). All in all one of the best movies I've seen in a very long time, and an instant classic in the making. This Lucky McGee fella might be worth looking out for in the future.
"I don't think she could've gotten his whole finger in one bite though, that bit was a little far fetched."
Rawshark Jim’s absolutely right - May is one of those movies that sits unwanted (rather like May herself) on the DVD shelves, her gothic face, surrounded by some sort of religious halo, staring out at us, pleading for us to sympathise. Of course, most of us ignored it in the cinema and everywhere else, which is a real shame, as May is a quite wonderful (although very creepy) little movie.
Spooky opening aside, May comes across as mostly sympathetic, thanks largely to a phenomenal turn from Angela Bettis in the titular role. Even though she’s prone to pricking her fingers with scalpels, chatting to glass-encased dolls, and has an obsession with knives and sewing, Angela Bettis’ performance as the shy outsider is breathtaking and certainly pulls on your empathy strings (“I need a friend. Someone I can hold.”). It does help that she’s strangely attractive (“She’s absolutely stunning!” – Jim), but the thing that really did it for me is when she sat down in Adam’s flat to watch his extraordinary (film-within-a-film!) black and white zombie love short – Jack and Jill. Any girl that happily watches homemade zombie films (and offers constructive criticism) is a top girl in my book.
Lucky McGee’s direction is assured and rock-steady, with some nice cinematography and beautiful editing. The soundtrack (Breeders, Pixies etc) is great and fits the film perfectly, and there’s plenty of humour too, with the man with a three-legged dog being a highlight. It’s tender, it’s touching, and totally engaging, and when things finally start going right for May (she gets the guy, and also gets the girl too in the form of Scary Movie’s Anna Faris), we’re totally on her side, hoping that she can keep it all together.
She doesn’t of course - that bloody doll of hers will keep talking to her – and when two rejections in one day lead to her (accidentally?) killing the cat, all hell starts to break loose, and we realise she probably is a little bit crazy after all. Yet, you know, even as the film heads towards it’s pretty gruesome climax as May starts chopping people up, we’re (if even only a tiny bit) still on her side, and come the end, as she lies holding her friend’s arms, pleading with him (her?) to see her, we realise that she has finally found the peace she has been looking for all along. May(be).
“When I left for vacation, my dog had four legs! Now it has three! I throw a stick and nothing happens!”
Zomblee Rawshark and Jim are both wrong. Only joking, I just wanted to disagree for the sake of it. In fact, they’re both spot-on and this is one Zombie Club film we all loved every minute of. I would have no inclination whatsoever to rent this film so thanks guys for continuing to enrich my somewhat 70’s obsessed celluloid palette. The most often said line at Zombie Club must surely be "I would never have seen this movie if it wasn’t for Zombie Club!" (well, that and "It’s a really good transfer isn’t it!") and tonight was no exception.
Angela Bettis, as you May have already guessed, really is superb. Her role in May certainly gives her enough space to show what she’s capable of and it’d be one hell of a struggle to find any other horror story worthy enough to let her express her range of abilities. Any other half-decent actress could have stepped into her shoes to play Nell in tonight’s next film, The Toolbox Murders, but this is much less likely to be the case with May. The role looks both demanding and challenging; her ability to evoke contrasting reactions is a surefire sign of special talent. More often than not in this game, less is more and it looks like Bettis knows the score, how to play, and how to win.
Bettis is not the only thing May has to offer. Certain scenes and devices are undeniably potent. For example, her creepy doll’s glass box which, after she bashes it and it cracks slightly, continues to crack bit by bit, little by little, throughout the rest of the film. The sound of this cracking glass is particularly enhanced to make the viewer feel as uncomfortable as possible in order to reflect May’s turmoil. It’s such a nice touch, and the theme is developed further in a disturbing scene involving crawling blind children and shattered glass on the floor.
Jeremy Sisto ("…from John Travolta’s loins" – Rawshark) who plays May’s initial love interest is good and plays the kind of character you don’t want to see being disposed of. His character’s love of Dario Argento will endear genre fans and although he seems like an "in control" kind of guy, we have every reason to be scared for him. Anna Faris plays Polly, May’s ditzy work colleague and a hot lesbian ("Ah…these are film lesbians aren’t they!" Rawshark astutely observed. He’s right too, they never look as good as Anna Faris in real life) who furnishes May’s descent with some genuinely well-written and performed comic relief.
Twisted, bizarre, sad, funny and quirky, May performs a fair degree of genre flirting before finding itself where it really wants to be – the good old World of Horror. The ending is nothing short of perversely beautiful. Most of what happens everywhere else in the film is nothing short of perversely beautiful, too.
"So many pretty parts, but no pretty wholes."
Director Lucky McKee
Cast Angela Bettis
Chandler Riley Hecht
Runtime 93 mins
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Toolbox Murders (2003)
Plot A historic Hollywood hotel houses a supernatural evil. It's been subdued for decades - but when renovations start, a series of murders take place. It's up to our heroine to solve the mystery.
Zomblee Hmmm. This is apparently a remake of the 1978 movie, but it is similar in name only. Obviously, the fact that the two movies share a name means that this one also features a Black and Decker-approved killer wearing a balaclava. At first impression this 'remake' feels disappointingly average. And who would expect any less given ‘once-great’ director Tobe Hooper's involvement with the project? Throughout the years he's proven himself to be a director who misses more than he hits, though I'd like to think that when one of your few 'hits' includes The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, all could be forgiven. Hooper has also stayed true to the genre he began with, so respect where it's due. He's an interesting figure, in that he started at his peak and has been going downhill ever since, whereas his peers (Carpenter, Landis, Cronenberg, Romero et al) took longer to hone their craft but have maintained more accomplished output throughout their respective careers.
The plot goes like this: Nell and "young doctor" husband Steven have just moved into the Lusman Arms - a NY apartment block with a dubious history, paper-thin walls and neighbours from hell populating all the floors. Murders are happening but no one can prove it so Nell takes it upon herself to solve the mystery. Through the course of the plot we learn that there seems to be an alarming absence of a fourth apartment on every floor (i.e. no 104, 204, 304, etc) and are prompted to consider whether this can be related to the strange symbols on the corridor walls. Giving too much plot detail away would be easy here, so instead just see it for yourself because the plot devices alone are good enough to warrant a viewing, even if the lifeless direction isn't.
As in May, young Angela Bettis is superb. "She's too good for horror films" remarked Jim, and he may have a good point. How she could be any thinner than in May (as Jim was convinced) is both beyond me and physically ill advised. Why she needs to go running is a mystery. She not only looks great, but is more than capable of bringing just the right kind of spirit to the film.
All in all, the Toolbox Murders just about works, and has a similar feel to Wes Craven's classic The People Under the Stairs, but set in a bigger 'Building from Hell'. The tapestry of resident characters is rich enough, as is the well-crafted unfolding story of the Lusman Arms, although Hooper's somewhat tacky cartoon-style touches do tend to cheapen proceedings a little. Tackiness aside, the ending steps up the gears and should satisfy genre enthusiasts nicely. A no-frills horror movie without any annoyingly hip twists and turns, The Toolbox Murders delivers the goods straight to your door. Just don't expect more than you ordered.
"I've gotta get outta here!"
Rawshark When I first saw Toolbox Murders back in August at FrightFest 2004, I just didn’t get it and I wasn’t alone. I overheard several other people trash it, but bizarrely Jim really enjoyed it, and nether was he alone as many other people were saying the same as he. Reviews since have been all over the place, some slating it, whilst others praising it, so maybe I was actually missing something, maybe there was some hidden goodness to be found amongst the dredge. Maybe it wasn’t that bad after all. Time to re-evaluate.
I originally thought the best thing about this film was Angela Bettis. I still do. She simply walks away with this film, and having now also seen May, I’m extremely keen to track down 2002’s TV version of Carrie with AB playing Carrie. But on a re-viewing of this film, there are one or two nice touches also worth looking out for. The script is quite fun, reasonably assured and fairly ‘knowing’ without slipping into too much irony or parody, and some of the supporting characters are quite well written (including a low-budget Rip-Torn-alike gay landlord and Ned the handyman). There’s also plenty of pleasing gore in the shape of bolt-cutters to the spine and a nice head slicing in amongst all the blood-letting.
Yet, at the end of the day, Toolbox Murders still fails, and it fails mainly because (I’m afraid to say) of Tobe Hooper’s direction and some very dodgy plot misgivings. Tobe Hooper has indeed fallen far from grace, and we can only hope his next two films with the same writing team (Mortuary and Zombies) are a lot sharper in terms of frames of reference and consistency of tone. As for the plot; where is Nell’s husband throughout the whole of this film? What are all those symbols about? Why does it turn from a whodunit to a slasher movie three-quarters of the way through? And most importantly, who the hell was the Toolbox Murdererer in the end anyway? Nope, I still don’t really fully ‘get’ this film, but as Jim says, any movie that has “shots of Angela Bettis walking up corridors and banging on walls is fine by me”, and I suppose he does have a point.
Interestingly, in another link to tonight’s films, the director of May, Lucky McGee, was originally set to play the part of the killer in Toolbox Murders, but dropped out to work on his own horror film, The Woods.
“Sweet Jesus, what was that?” ‘Shut up and bleed Mutha-fucka!”
Jim Well, as Lo-Pang said in the timeless Big Trouble in Little China, "Shut up Mr. Burton! You were not put on this Earth to 'get it'..." It became one of those weird occurences actually - I really liked this movie, Rawshark didn't much care for it and Zomblee sat on the fence. Fair enough - variety is the spice of life after all.
Not many spices in this killer's kitchen though, only claw hammer, drill, nail gun and saw. Yes, it's Toolbox Murders time again except without Cameron Mitchell so sadly no renditionings of 'Sometime I feel like a motherless child' this time around. In fact, the only thing this movie shares with it's 70s namesake is a toolbox. Um, and some murders. Oh, and the balaclava naturally, although ("I prefer the balaclava from the original..." - Zomblee). That one had a red band around it, you see.
After reading Zomblee and Rawshark's pieces, I'm sure you have a good idea of the movie's plot. Nell lives in the famous Luhzman apartment building, which is filled with wanabee actors that nobody misses when they suspiciously start vanishing. As no one else seems interested, Nell decides to tackle the mystery alone - her husband Steve is a young intern at a local hospital and is therefore expected to put in crazy hours (hence never being around - Rawshark!) Her investigation takes up the first two-thirds of the film and ranges from chatting to the surfer-dude librarian about the building's bizarre plans (useful) and chatting to the all-knowing old guy downstairs (also useful), to wandering the corridors banging on walls (pointless) and drawing funky symbols on your forearms (potentially pointless, but turns out quite useful in the end). Meanwhile in the background, various colourful members of the cast get bumped off by nefarious means that will keep the gore hounds happy, but it's not until the final third that the movie really hots up.
At around the same time as Nell accidentally gets trapped deep within the bowels of the Luhzman building, every other surviving member of the cast congregates in the foyer as if it's time for the 'final act' roll-call. They soon find their own way into the building's secret are as but are then quite hilariously nearly all wasted in quick succession, dispelling all whodunit theories almost instantly (although if you look at the killer's ugly mug on the video cover, you'll soon forget those thoughts anyway). And then, right at the end, the very 80s trait of forgetting to check whether the killer's actually dead occurs twice, making the final set piece all the more amusing.
Toolbox Murders is a bizarre film, open in many ways to a huge amount of viewer discretion. As my colleagues have both said, Tobe Hooper's direction is bland, but the Luhzman building is a great setting and I like all the characters, whether they're the reasonably well developed principals or the intentional light relief. In fact, I personally couldn't find all that much wrong with Toolbox Murders, except that maybe the movie hasn't learned a great deal from 20 years of horror cinema and the 80s cliches do catch up with it, especially near the end.
Mind you I like 80s horror, which is probably why I like Toolbox Murders so much. Actually, Toolbox Murders could be considered a neat little 80s horror film that you've never seen, except that it was made last year, err... if you know what I mean. When it's good it's good and when it's bad it's really funny in a stupid kind of way, but I can see why this won't be everyone's cup of tea. And even though I really like this movie, I have to admit I do prefer the original, and not just for the balaclava.
"Sometime I feel like a motherless child..."
Director Tobe Hooper
Cast Angela Bettis
Runtime 95 mins
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Two quality movies and still home before the last train, that's what we needed.
May was liked by everybody. It was a bit of a risk pulling out something different to the absolute rubbish we often entertain ourselves with, but it was a risk that paid off. Phew.
Toolbox Murders was a different story. We all had fun watching it (Angela Bettis is absolutely stunning after all) but we did disagree over how good it was, which probably explains why our individual write-ups for Toolbox Murders was a little longer than usual. Still, we did all agree that Bettis is one to watch in the future (check this news item out for a start) and no punches were thrown, so all's well that ends well.
And to think, despite all three of us thinking we're pretty funny guys, neither of us got the biggest laugh of the night. That honour goes to Raw's flatmate Matt who, when the second movie started, came out with a classic.
"It's that bird from the first film!"
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