Review: ‘Axe Murders of Villisca’ Takes on 1912 Unsolved Murders

Review: ‘Axe Murders of Villisca’ Takes on 1912 Unsolved Murders

From IFC Midnight, Tony E. Valenzuela’s The Axe Murders of Villisca explores the unsolved, axe murders that took place in a Victorian home in Villisca, Iowa in 1912.  More than a hundred years later, the Villisca Axe Murder House still remains an enigma and subject of interest. That is where scribes Valenzuela, Kevin Abrams, and Owen Egerton come in, crafting a possession story inspired by the very real true crime incident and making it entirely their own.

Three outcast teens are about to go knocking where they shouldn’t when they pencil in an appointment for a tour of the Villisca Axe Murder House. Caleb (Robert Adamson) and Denny (Jarrett Sleeper) are troubled BFF’s with their fair share of personal issues and inner demons. Jess (Alex Frnka) is the third-wheel who joins the duo after Caleb defends her from a bully at school. Jess is a victim of sexual assault and degradation, perpetrated by the school jocks, which is then filmed and shared online. As these things usually pan out, she’s hazed, slut-and-victim shamed, for the actions of misogynistic and entitled men.

Caleb is on the way out of town, it’s his last day at school after receiving his GED, and is thus, leaving Denny behind. With prospects set on a job promised to Caleb in Omaha, the two go on a last hurrah before the two are separated indefinitely. Denny and Caleb have an online Youtube channel called, “Maryville Paranormal Institute” and they ghost hunt locales, just like Villisca, which they have yet to tackle. Much to Denny’s chagrin, Jess joins them after she seeks Caleb when he defends her from a bully at school– and it’s quite clear that both Caleb and Jess are attracted to each other.

When they arrive at the house it doesn’t take too long for things to go awry. A mad lady  who tends to the home attacks Jess when she trails off into a tapered off section of the house, during their guided tour. Denny feels that their trek to Villisca is incomplete and Jess suggests that they sneak into the home when the sun sets and take their own personal tour of the home– which as we know, is not a good idea. Whatever died in the home, and whatever compelled the murder of eight individuals (including 6 children) has return to spook and manipulate the trio, turning each against the other.

The Axe Murders of Villisca is not your typical ghost/possession story.  What few of these type of movies do is set-up interesting characters with complicated backstories, opting instead for actors to act as mere vessels for the spirits to control and wreak havoc. Here we get a glimpse of Jess’s trauma, Denny’s identity crisis as a possible homosexual, and Caleb’s violent and troubled past with his father. All this comes to play in the third act when the forces within the home begin to take hold, which comes together rather interestingly.

Overall, Villisca is solid, taking time to build a character arc and taking Iowan lore and transforming it into it’s own film. It uses the actual 1912 murder (recreated here in the opener) as a way to introduce us to the horrendous unsolved crime, but from there the film eschews being tethered completely by the source material. One can sift through the internet and countless photographs, theories, and explanations and be lost for hours for anyone interested in true crime and unsolved murder. The film doesn’t attempt to recreate the events past its inoculating and eerie open, but instead uses the murders as a launch pad for speculation into the otherworldly and spiritual forces. Fans of ghost/possession stories are sure to enjoy this feature film, one that is interesting and creepy enough to keep your interest. The film offers solid performances from its main trio of actors as the troubled youths catapulted into a dire situation against unknown forces.  The Axe Murders of Villisca, in the least, will inspire you to research the actual, fascinating and strange, story of the Villisca axe murders.

You can now watch The Axe Murders of Villisca on video on demand on Amazon Video, Itunes, and Google Play.