Tobe Hooper's Toolbox Murders (2004), a remake of the 70s grindhouse piece, is a tale of two movies. The first is a slasher film in which a masked killer dispatches hapless victims in gory fashion using items from said toolbox. The other concerns a young woman's investigation into the nature of the building in which said the murders take place. She uncovers a history of occult activity and mysterious disappearances in a back story as frustrating as it is fascinating. The movie is also Hooper's best work in at least 15 years and rightly hailed as his comeback.
Nell (Angela Bettis) and Steven Barrows (Brent Roam) have just moved into Lusman Arms, a historic Hollywood apartment building just as it's undergoing renovations. The place is falling apart, and the residents and employees are a motley selection of creeps and weirdos. Steven, a medical student in residency at a nearby hospital, isn't around when Nell, an unemployed teacher, begins to notice spooky things. Tenants begin disappearing, and she grows paranoid. She delves into the history and architecture of the place, not knowing that a masked man is lurking in the walls, only emerging to claim his next victim.
The film opens with a line of text: "Every year, thousands of people move to Hollywood to pursue their dreams. Some succeed. Some go home. Others just ... disappear."
Hooper has always had a fascination with the seedy, surreal underbelly of reality (John Kenneth Muir calls him the Lewis Carroll of the genre), and for the first time, he turns his gaze onto Hollywood itself and its legacy built on the hopes and blood of so many young actors. Beneath the promised land of stardom and wealth, Hollywood in Toolbox Murders is one of destitution if you're lucky and death if you're not. Jack Lusman, the man who built the Lusman Arms, hobnobbed with all stars and powerful of the Golden Era of Hollywood at the same time he dabbled into the occult. He built the apartment building to be both a shrine to the glamor and his black magic temple.
Of course, no one really pays to see a movie called Toolbox Murders for its back story; they want to see brutal kills, and we get them. Hammers, buzz saws, power drills, nail guns, and crowbars all make an appearance to horribly maim and kill people. Hooper, who famously left the deaths of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to the viewers' imaginations, lingers on the blood and gore here. These are some of the nastiest death scenes he's ever done.
What prevents the movie from reaching the realm of modern classic is the eventual irrelevance of its plot. The strange symbols on the walls that somehow give the killer immortality -hence why he resumes murdering when the renovations occur - are initially spooky, and it's involving to watch Nell go from creeped out to paranoid to investigative, but ultimately nothing is explained in a satisfying manner. There are several red herrings, but even after seeing the film several times, I'm not sure who or what the killer was supposed to be. He's revealed to have been a "Coffin Baby," born in a casket after his mother died, but that raises the question of what that has to do with the building. Eventually, the paranormal stuff gives way to slasher cliches, groups getting picked off one at a time, and the final girl, although this is handled fairly well.
Many people have given up on Tobe Hooper after a string of lackluster movies, but Toolbox Murders shows he still can give a good effort. I think he's got another classic in him. While this film isn't it, it shows he's back on track.