'The Axe Murders of Villisca': Film Review

The Axe Murders Of Villisca Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of IFC
Far from cutting-edge horror.

This indie horror film concerns three teenage friends who spend the night in the haunted environs where a real-life massacre took place.

Anyone intrigued by the notorious, real-life murders that took place in 1912 Villisca, Iowa, would be best advised to check out the Wikipedia entry on the case. It’s far scarier than Tony E. Valenzuela’s low-budget movie inspired by the events, which devolves into typical teen-oriented, supernatural horror.

Although not as well-known as many other true-crime stories, the axe murders certainly deserve a place in the pantheon of intriguing, unsolved crimes. On a summer evening, a married couple and six young children, two of whom were guests, were brutally hacked and bludgeoned to death by an unknown assailant. A traveling minister was tried twice for the murders but was acquitted both times, and the case remains unsolved to this day.

Owen Egerton’s screenplay, which is less concerned with the actual murders — depicted in a gruesome prologue — is set in the present day. The story concerns three high school students: Caleb (Robert Adamson) and Denny (Jarrett Sleeper), who host a video blog about supposedly haunted locations; and Jess (Alex Frnka), their friend who has become an outcast at school because of a sex tape that has been leaked online…as if that wouldn’t actually make her more popular these days.

After taking a guided tour of the house that results in their getting kicked out when Jess wanders off without permission, the intrepid trio decide to break into the house later that night and conduct their own paranormal investigation. (It probably would have been far easier to simply rent overnight accommodations in the house, which is now a tourist attractions and rents rooms to guests, but this is admittedly more dramatic.)

Conducting a seance, they soon find themselves beset, and in some cases possessed, by the spirits haunting the home, with the latter aspect conveyed in typical horror film fashion by eyes turning black. Along the way, aspects of the characters’ personal lives are revealed; an unexpected visit from a pair of school bullies turns violent; and, not surprisingly, Jess doffs her shirt.  

Disjointed and confusing, the film fails to live up to the promise of its spooky setting. There’s a good horror film to be made from this story, but The Axe Murders of Villisca isn’t it.

Production: Ketchum Labs
Distributor: IFC Midnight
Cast: Robert Adamson, Jarrett Sleeper, Alex Frnka, Sean Whalen, Conchata Ferrell, Riley Bodenstab, Kellan Rhude
Director: Tony E. Valenzuela
Screenwriter: Owen Egerton
Producer: Seth Caplan, Michael Wormser
Executive producers: Kevin Abrams, Cindy Cowan, Jamie Denenberg, Patrick Weir
Director of photography: Jeffrey Waldron
Production designer: Matthew Trotter
Costume designer: Carrie Grace
Composer: Brandon Roberts
Casting: Jeremy Gordon, Beth Lipari
Not rated, 78 minutes