“The Axe Murders of Villisca”

Three Friends

Amos Lassen

 On a June night in 1912, there was a terrible crime in the peaceful town of Villisca. Eight people — a mother, father, their four children, and two guests were brutally murdered by an axe-wielding killer in a case that remains unsolved to this day. Now, a century later, Caleb (Robert Adamson) and gay best friend and secret admirer Denny (Jarrett Sleeper) share an interest in ghost hunting. They sneak into the house where the crime occurred. When Caleb invites Jess (Alex Frnka) to come along with them, Denny becomes extremely jealous.

First-time feature filmmaker, Tony E. Valenzuela’s “The Axe Murders of Villisca” derives its name from an Iowa town whose macabre claim to fame involves an infamous ax murder. In the century since the crime, the site has been turned into a tourist stop offering overnight stays for ghost hunters and the generally curious. 

Someone who knows the story well is Iowan teen Denny, one-half of the Maryville Paranormal Institute.  The other half is 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 quite a reputation at school because of a video taken while she was drunk with resident bad boy Connor.

“Villisca” builds the foundation of its high school drama back-stories with considerate care that makes it all believable as the story unfolds.Denny, Caleb, and Jess use 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.

While the world may never know the truth about what happened that summer night, “The Axe Murders of Villisca” seeks to fill in the blanks and offer up its own supernatural explanation. Unfortunately, the true story from which this film draws its inspiration is much more interesting than this film. “The Axe Murders of Villisca” is a movie with promise and even though it tries hard, it does not deliver.

The story begins with troubled teen Caleb is given a ride to his last day of high school by his best friend Denny. When they get there, they are immediately accosted by high school bullies Conner (Riley Bodenstab) and Rob (Khellan Rhude) but before a confrontation can happen the school’s principal, (Conchata Ferrell), saves the day. It is then that we are introduced to the third member of their prospective ghost hunting trio, Jess who is hiding out in a bathroom stall to escape because of a video that is circulating online of her having sex with Conner. Later, while standing at his locker, Caleb sees the other bully, Rob harassing Jess and as she swiftly walks away Caleb smashes Rob’s face into a locker.

The trio then makes their way to the house and gets a tour by Uncle Rico (Jon Gries). Their tour is cut short when Jess steps over one of the velvet ropes and is accosted by screaming old woman who comes out of nowhere and since they didn’t get the full tour they decide to wait until dark to sneak back in and look around as ghostly events follow.

Of course the bullies find out where the three are and show up to torment them. There are creepy ghost kids offering up cryptic ghostly warnings. No one as we might have thought actually dies on screen to an axe, even in the flashbacks of the axe murders the house is known for. I am not sure how a film with such a plot could turn out to be so plebian. The plot is derivative, the title is misleading, the dialogue is about as banal as you can get and the interplay between the leads is forced and stiff. But the film looks great and there is potential here. I am still baffled by the ending.

Would I recommend this film? Yes, I would because it is fun. I also like that we have a thoughtful gay subplot, something that is rare in horror films. I am not going to say anymore except that I am curious as to how you see this.

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