Studio: IFC Midnight
Director: Tony E. Valenzuela
Writer: Owen Egerton, Kevin Abrams, Tony E. Valenzuela
Producer: Seth Caplan, Michael Wormser
Stars: Robert Adamson, Jarrett Sleeper, Alex Frnka, Jon Gries, Sean Whalen, Riley Bodenstab, Kellan Rhude, Conchata Ferrell
Three teenagers encounter supernatural evil while spending a night inside the infamous Villisca ax murder house.
NOTE: "The Axe Murders of Villisca" previously went by the title "Villisca."
Horror cinema has effectively dried the well of the notably notorious true crime tales and ghost stories that make suitable tableaus for fantasized fiction of serial killers and supernatural specters. Movies including Charles Manson as a character or Amityville as a location are largely responsible for why we know so much about their stories in the first place. Though with dozens of films already featuring such well-known names, audiences aren’t exactly eager to take another trip into “this again?” territory.
Like director Simon Rumley did with “Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word” (review here), first-time feature filmmaker Tony E. Valenzuela gives his audience a fresher taste of “true story” terror by taking inspiration from a less familiar source. Valenzuela’s “The Axe Murders of Villisca” derives its name from an Iowa town whose macabre claim to fame involves an infamous ax murder more gruesome than the one at Lizzie Borden’s home, yet nowhere near as widespread as a common knowledge crime story.
As the late night of June 9th turned into the early morning of June 10th in 1912, someone or someones entered the Moore Family residence in Villisca and used an ax to slaughter eight people, six of whom were children. Traveling minister George Kelly was tried, and acquitted, twice for the crimes. Although the killings officially remain unsolved, the circumstances of his connection to the case are suspicious enough that many, including the film, still assume Kelly wielded the ax.
In the century since, the site turned into a tourist stop offering overnight stays for ghost hunters and the generally curious. Nothing of note ever took place again until November 7th of 2014, when armchair paranormal investigator Robert Laursen Jr. reportedly stabbed himself in the chest while spending a night in the home. Details on the how and the why of the self-inflicted knife plunge are nearly impossible to find (though Laursen apparently did recover). But the occurrence is similar enough to something in “The Axe Murders of Villisca” that the movie includes a card in the credits distancing its fiction from this odd 2014 event.
While many of us may have been in the dark about Villisca prior to its titular silver screen debut, someone who knows the story well is Iowan teen Denny, one-half of the Maryville Paranormal Institute. The other half is Denny’s best friend Caleb, and their “institute” is actually just a YouTube video blog dedicated to amateur ghost hunting.
Denny harbors a secret crush on Caleb. Caleb has eyes for new girl Jessica. Recently transplanted from Chicago, Jess already has a reputation at school thanks to a humiliating viral video taken while drunk with resident bad boy Connor.
A troublemaker in a letterman jacket with a beanie-sporting sidekick bothering the kid from the wrong side of the tracks, his good-hearted pal, and a city girl struggling to fit into her small town life probably sounds like a lot of typical movie teen melodrama, and it is. Except the likability of lead actors Robert Adamson, Jarrett Sleeper, and Alex Frnka (not a typo) counteracts clichéd characterizations. “Villisca” builds the foundation of its high school drama backstories with considerate care that unfolds organically and creates chemistry believably.
In fact, all of the groundwork laid to present the premise, set the scenery, and ignite interest in the paranormal hook shows a great deal of promise in early scenes. It is the last act’s struggle to live up to that promise where the film loses some of its initially sure footing.
Exterior cinematography gives the setting a great Fall foliage “Children of the Corn” vibe before action transfers into the haunted house. In a slight twist on convention, Denny, Caleb, and Jess forego the usual Ouija board summoning in favor of dousing rods to conduct their after hours séance in the Villisca murder house. Stirring up spirits is only one-half of the trio’s trouble however, as bully Connor and his toadie Rob soon arrive to drum up a little danger of their own.
Once fit starts hitting the shan, “Villisca” loses momentum as the last act traps itself inside an ongoing dreaminess that doesn’t solidify into white knuckle suspense. Possessed persons go into black-eyed trances and wander around individually, entering an offscreen stasis until the main narrative has need for them again. Details here become cloudy without coalescing into an exhilarating conclusion. “Villisca” then ends on a weird note of retroactive redemption where consequences don’t at all balance with the previous crime.
It’s hardly a complete squandering of potential. Running a non-taxing 75 minutes, there is only so much that can be done anyway.
A fairer assessment is to say “The Axe Murders of Villisca” slows down its intrigue factor to a jog as it approaches the finish line, instead of pounding feet hard in a breathless dash. “Villisca” has a typical “trespassing teens run afoul of a supernatural stalker” setup, yet its true crime connection keeps it more interesting than many films of this nature. The movie may not put director Tony E. Valenzuela on the map the way ax murders did Villisca, but it is a respectable debut, even as a somewhat standard thriller.
Review Score: 60