A man dressed in black drives through Los Angeles and flashes back to a girl dying in a car accident. The man arrives at an apartment complex and kills a female tenant (who recognizes him) with a drill. Afterward, the man dons a ski mask and murders two other women, the first with a hammer and the second with a screwdriver. The police are called and they interview the people who found the bodies, as well as Vance Kingsley, the owner of the building. The next night, the killer strikes again, breaking into the apartment of a woman who is masturbating in her bathtub and shooting her in the stomach and head with a nail gun. The murderer then abducts Laurie Ballard, a fifteen-year-old who lives in the above apartment with her family.
Laurie's brother Joey is questioned by Detective Jamison and, frustrated by the detective's seemingly lax attitude towards Laurie's disappearance, decides to search for his sister on his own. While looking through the homes of the murdered women, Joey meets up with Kent, Vance's nephew, who has been hired to clean up the apartments of the deceased tenants. While Joey is helping Kent, Kathy Kingsley, Kent's cousin and Vance's daughter, is brought up, with Kent mentioning that Vance has not been the same since Kathy died in a car accident.
It is revealed that Vance is the serial killer, having been driven insane and to religious mania by the death of his daughter. He is killing sinners and has kidnapped Laurie (who is kept tied up and gagged in Kathy's bedroom) to replace Kathy. During a discussion with Detective Jamison, Joey realizes that all the clues point to Vance being the killer, so he goes to the Kingsley house and is followed there by Kent (who had earlier seen the bound and gagged Laurie in his uncle's home). Joey finds bloody tools in Vance's garage, and is confronted by Kent, who sets Joey on fire to protect his family.
Kent walks in on Vance talking to Laurie, and enrages his uncle by telling him that he and Kathy had an incestuous relationship. Vance and Kent fight, and Kent ends up fatally stabbing Vance with a kitchen knife. Kent goes to Laurie, cuts her bonds and rapes her. Afterward, Kent acts as if he and Laurie are married and implies that he killed Joey and Vance, prompting Laurie to stab him to death with a pair of scissors. A dazed and bloodied Laurie wanders out of the house, as an intertitle states that the film was a dramatization of events that occurred in 1967 and that Laurie was institutionalized for three years and now resides in San Fernando Valley with her husband and their child.Cameron Mitchell as Vance Kingsley
Pamelyn Ferdin as Laurie Ballard
Wesley Eure as Kent Kingsley
Nicholas Beauvy as Joey Ballard
Tim Donnelly as Detective Lieutenant Mark Jamison
Aneta Corsaut as Joanne Ballard
Faith McSwain as Mrs. Andrews
Marciee Drake as Deborah
Evelyn Guerrero as Maria
Victoria Perry as Woman in Apartment
Robert Bartlett as Man in Apartment
Betty Cole as John's Wife
John Hawker as John
Don Diamond as Sergeant Cameron
Alisa Powell as Girlfriend
Kelly Nichols as Dee Ann DeVore
Robert Forward as Screamer Man
Kathleen O'Malley as Screamer Woman
Gil Galvano as Man
James Nolan as Al
George Deaton as Preacher
Development for The Toolbox Murders began in 1977 when L.A. producer Tony Didio a low-budget horror film after noticing a successful second release of Tobe Hooper's landmark horror film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Didio had been intrigued by the films financial success, and knowing the film's distributors had contacted them wondering how the film's was being re-released so soon. After a conversation with the film's distributors, Didio decided that he would release his own low-budget horror film. Didio screened the film with writers Ann Kindberg, Robert Easter, and Neva Friedenn, giving them the mandate to create a variation of Hooper's landmark film that
The Toolbox Murders was released theatrically in the United States by Cal-Am Artists in March 1978. The film was put out on VHS by VCI Entertainment.
The Toolbox Murders was briefly on the list of the video nasties and was initially banned in the UK before being subsequently acquitted in court and removed from the DPP's list.
An edited DVD was released in the UK in 2000 by VIPCO. To date, there is no uncut UK release. The film was later released as a Special Edition DVD by Blue Underground in 2003, and was re-released on Blu-ray in 2010.
Upon its release, critics complained about the film's misogynistic views towards victimization, and exploitation of women along with its graphic violence and nudity.
Fred Beldin from the New York Times criticized the film's characters and villains as "clumsily expressed" and called the films conclusion "incredibly silly" concluding, "as a result, the only enjoyment that can be obtained from the film is ultimately derisive". Leonard Maltin awarded the film 1 1/2 out of a possible 4 stars. Robert Firsching from Allmovie called it "misogynistic" and "nasty", when talking about the film's murder scenes Firsching stated, "None of these things would be quite as shocking if not for the cast, most of whom (save for Cameron Mitchell and Nichols) might have wondered what they were doing in junk like this".
DVD Verdict said the film was "a cut above (no pun intended) your average exploitation horror film" though went on to say "if The Toolbox Murders has one major flaw, it is in the division between the gory slasher and neurotic thriller film" and "The first half is gruesome. The last half is unsettling. But they really are almost two different movies". Another review by the same website was also predominantly positive, stating "Sure it's got gore and nudity galore, but I think it's survived as long as it has because it completely upsets viewer expectations in its second half. By starting out as a typical slasher and ending as a psychological thriller, Toolbox gets under the skin in a way that sticking with one genre or another would not have". The review concluded by saying "it's gory side is gory enough and its creepy side creepy enough to make it worth a watch for those interested in exploitation fare" despite the flat middle half and unrealistic, twist-filled ending.
Oh, the Horror! responded well to The Toolbox Murders, calling it "a gritty little affair that oozes a 70s penchant for all things exploitation" that was stylistic and upsetting, even if it was slow in parts. A one and half out of five was awarded by Hysteria Lives!, which found that despite possessing a large amount of violence and other exploitative elements, the film was tedious and drab, being flatly directed and lacking in suspense.
Film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported an approval rating of 0%, based on 5 reviews, with a rating average of 2.2/10.
The film has since gained a cult following over the years.
Scott Glosserman claimed to have put an easter egg in his film Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon with the character of Eugene being responsible for the toolbox murders.
In 2004, Tobe Hooper directed a remake simply entitled Toolbox Murders. The film veered considerably from the original plotline but ultimately was better received than the original.