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Ah, life's little ironies - in 2003, whilst New Line were busy with their utterly pointless (and awful) remake of Tobe Hooper's seminal 1974 horror classic THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, Hooper himself was busy remaking the 1978 video nasty THE TOOLOBOX MURDERS.
Hooper, as any horror fan will tell you, never fulfilled that early promise - just how does someone go about building a career for themselves, having just made their debut with what is almost certainly the defining American horror film of all time? His follow up films, DEATH TRAP/EATEN ALIVE (1977), SALEM'S LOT (1979) and THE FUN HOUSE (1981) are often unjustly overlooked (they're all very good films), and his fifth film, POLTERGEIST (1982) was a massive international hit - surely here was a director destined for horror greatness. Unfortunately for Hooper, POLTERGEIST's producer Steven Spielberg seems to have been awarded most of the credit for the film's success, and Hooper's career went into freefall from this point onwards. The only films worth mentioning in the following 20 year interval are the deliriously daft LIFEFORCE (1985) and the uneven attempt at a belated TEXAS CHAINSAW sequel in 1986. Since then, with the exception of a standout episode in the 'Tales From the Crypt' TV series, Hooper has gone from bad to worse, with his CROCODILE (2000) marking an all-time low.
I don't suppose many people held out much hope when he was announced as director for a proposed remake of TOOLBOX MURDERS, a well below average slasher film best known for its status as one of the dreaded video nasties in the UK (along with Hooper's own DEATH TRAP and THE FUNHOUSE). The fact that the screenplay writers for this remake were the same pair responsible for CROCODILE and its sequel (not directed by Hooper) only served to reinforce the impression of hopelessness. I rented the film as I felt it was my duty as a life-long fan of Hooper's, even though I was expecting the worst... but I'm pleased (and surprised) to report that this turned out to be Hooper's best film in many years.
The film opens with the fairly nasty murder by claw hammer of an aspiring actress (played by Sheri Moon, Rob Zombie's partner), before introducing us to the main characters in the film, newlyweds Nell, a unemployed teacher, (Angela Bettis) and Steven (Brent Roam), a busy young doctor. They've just taken up residence in a crummy apartment in a block called the 'Lusman Arms'. Their neighbours are either sleazy or unhinged, and the resident handyman Ned (played by one of the screenplay writers) is just plain creepy. Nell is left alone in the apartment whilst Steven goes to work, and she gradually begins to realise that something isn't right. This feeling is confirmed when she overhears her neighbour being murdered with a nailgun, although no body is found when she convinces the police to have a look. As another girl is murdered, Nell starts to find out that there's more to the apartment block than meets the eye, and gets nearer and nearer to the truth...
The above summation may not sound too great, but the first thing that should be made clear to anyone familiar with the original TOOLBOX MURDERS is that this is a lot more than a straight forward remake. Really, this would have worked just as well, if not better, without the rather silly 'toolbox murders' angle, and one can only assume that the only way Hooper could get funding was to agree to do a remake. The setting of the film is probably its biggest asset - the rundown apartment block, with its period decor and old-fashioned lighting makes for a suitably unsettling location, and is extremely well photographed. The other main thing that sets this film apart from other low budget slashers, is the presence of Angela Bettis in the star role. Bettis will be familiar to many people as the star of the surprise hit MAY (2000), and she turns in another excellent, sympathetic performance here. Also, with her strange, gawky looks, she is an interesting actress to watch, reminding me of a skinny Christina Ricci.
Many of the expected genre clichés are present, and the film does lose its way quite badly in the last ten minutes or so, but the scenes preceding the ending are handled very well, Hooper managing to build real tension and sustain it for a prolonged period of time. There are also pleasing (and presumably intended) homages to many other horror favourites, the most obvious being a BEYOND-style face melting, and the idea of a "second" building within the main building, which is very reminiscent of Argento's INFERNO (1980). There are also a lot of giallo-esque moments, all of which add up to a satisfying film to watch.
The interesting thing now will be to see whether Hooper's next film, MORTUARY, written by the same team, will build on this success, or head back towards CROCODILE territory...