In the opinion of this certified horror fan, 2003's Toolbox Murders falls far short of greatness. I've never been a Tobe Hooper fan, and this supposed resurrection of his horror career does nothing to change my way of thinking. I always feel weird when I go against the opinion of some great horror fans, but I cannot understand the accolades heaped upon Angela Bettis for her performance here. I found her character incredibly annoying and, if anything, a negative influence on the film. I had problems with other characters, as well. In addition, I would have liked to have a little more information on the source of all the horror here. I haven't seen the Toolbox Murders film from 1978 (which apparently does differ significantly from Hooper's "reimagining" of it), but this new film itself seems mired in the 1970s, giving the fright scenes a predictability that renders them benign and, in a sense, boring.
The story takes place in the Lunsford Hotel, which is full of "history" and "character" (which means it's begging to be condemned by this point). Steve and Nell Barrows (Brent Roam and Angela Bettis) move into the place and quickly realize that signing the lease was a big mistake. Nothing works right, the whole place is supposedly being remodeled (which apparently means the crud is being shifted around against a backdrop of constant hammering), the landlord is a prissy jerk, the maintenance man is one step up from a Neanderthal, and the residents are weird and loud. Nell begins hearing things left and right, but everyone treats her like she's just paranoid. When she actually makes a friend, said friend quickly disappears, and Nell is convinced something happened to her. She explores the history of the building, finding out that the strange symbols all over the place actually represent some kind of spell. Like an idiot, she explores the mystery up-close and gets a lot of people killed by the inhuman murderer (whose identity I can guess but not confirm). The fright scenes might make some folks jump once or twice, but the "look out behind you" tactics of the 1970s just aren't that impressive here in the twenty-first century.
Alongside several holes in the plot, a lot of details bothered me. First and foremost, what husband is going to lease an apartment without talking to his wife first - that's a recipe for marital unhappiness in and of itself. Then you have Nell going down to wash clothes on the night the Barrows move in. Who, I ask you, brings along dirty clothes on a move and insists on washing them before unpacking has really even begun? And that incredibly weird maintenance man Ned - talk about your obvious suspect.
We're missing what's really important here, though. That would be the inclusion of Juliet Landau, the sexiest vampire to ever grace the screen (as Drusilla in the Buffyverse). She was certainly one of my main motivations for seeing this film. Much to my surprise, though, she has nothing of the Drusilla aura about her, looking quite pale and sickly early on (except when compared to the emaciated Angela Bettis). Still, she brings a presence to the film that no other character begins to match.
I don't have a problem with the gore - you can never have too much gore, in my opinion. It would have been nice if the lighting had actually allowed me to see more of it, but I appreciate it being there. Sadly, that's about all there is to this movie, though - gore and 70s-style scares. The Lunsford building doesn't even have a strong presence of evil (despite the fact that the actual location is the Ambassador Hotel where RFK was assassinated) - it's just too depressing to be scary. I'm glad that some other horror fans enjoyed this movie, but Toolbox Murders just didn't do all that much for me.