The Axe Murders of Villisca (2017) Review

Dark ghost story is certainly familiar but has plenty good to offer.

The Axe Murders of Villisca is a 2017 horror film about the home of a notorious crime and a group of teenagers who go inside looking for answers.

Any horror film based on real-life murders always tread a fine line in telling an interesting story without desecrating the truth of those involved. Countless movies do it, inspired by events of the past or legends of them at least, and with The Axe of Murders of Villisca we’re at it again, sort of, and while there are some scares and a curiosity that inspires learning more, the film nonetheless veers far enough from the facts to make a decent if not predictably scary experience.

The very real murders of Villisca occurred in 1912 in a sleepy Iowa farm town where six members of the Moore family and two houseguests were savagely beaten to death with an axe, and while suspects were arrested, the case remains unsolved. That’s the truth. In the movie, the story takes place in the same town of Villisca, now in the present and follows three high school teens, best friends Caleb (Robert Adamson) and Denny (Jarrett Sleeper), and gothy girl Jess (Alex Frnka) from a nearby town who take a tour of the murder house and then decide to break in and spend the night to get footage for the boy’s ghost-hunting YouTube channel. After conducting a seance in the middle of the night, they conjure the spirits of the dead, sending the teens into hellish nightmare.

The Axe Murders of Villisca
The Axe Murders of Villisca, 2017 © Ketchum Labs

Directed by Tony E. Valenzuela, The Axe Murders of Villisca admittedly has an intriguing premise and the real story of the killings is a fascinating if not macabre bit of American history worth delving into, though the movie doesn’t really capitalize on the opportunities the house provides in that sense. It refuses to break even for a moment from expectations, starting with some superfluous setup in a by-the-numbers high school complete with bullies and a cool principal (Conchata Ferrell), before we learn about the tragic backgrounds of the boys and more specifically Jess, who is being shunned for a party sex tape that has leaked online that somehow makes her less popular with the boys at school. It then heads to the house and to some well-executed but obvious horror tropes, including POV camera shots, myriad jump scares, spooky music and sound effects, all of which do their job but are a little perfuctory, such as the overdone all-black eyes of the condemned.

Still, Valenzuela manages to build a better second half with some nice transitions and a tonal shift, dipping and committing to the genre like a cannonball dive into a shallow pool. And while that splash might not be as effective as it could be, there is some good things happening here, with strong performances and a story that’s more about redemption than ghosts. In fact, the movie isn’t actually about the old murders at all, but rather spirits who haunt these teens with an agenda all their own.

There’s a good story somewhere to be made about the real events of Villisca, however this film only hints at the possibility, marching along to a steady, familiar beat that will satisfy enthusiasts and maybe deliver a few chills but ultimately isn’t trying to turn this history into fiction but rather using it to tell something completely different. Made better by its performances, it’s worth a look.

The Axe Murders of Villisca (2017) Review

Movie description: The Axe Murders of Villisca is a 2017 horror film about the home of a notorious crime and the group of teenagers who go inside looking for answers.

Director(s): Tony E. Valenzuela

Actor(s): Robert Adamson, Jarrett Sleeper, Alex Frnka

Genre: Horror

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