Villisca full movie review - More Than a Ghost Story
"Villisca" is a ghost story based on the house where the notorious and still unsolved 1912 ax murders took place. Three outcast teenagers break into the house in search of answers, but discover something far beyond their worst fears.
Director Tony Valenzuela and producers Kevin Abrams and Seth Caplan had come to writer Owen Egerton with a story based on Tony's own visit to the house years before. He described voices, dark images, and, most intriguing of all, a sensation that the house was compelling him to commit acts of violence.
Upon joining the team, Egerton returned to the house with Valenzuela, and recalls that "the tour guide told us his own story of becoming infatuated with the house, revisiting it over and over and finally moving in next door. Tony nods along as the young man describes his uncanny and uncomfortable attraction to the spot. It's a house that invites obsession." The team spent the night at the house, with Valenzuela and Caplan prepping, and Egerton getting a feel for the living space. He says, "Do I believe in ghosts? I'm not certain, but I do know that when a rock hits a pond, the water ripples out. I could feel the ripples of that crime. I could feel it as a presence. I'm not sure if that house is haunted, but I was haunted." That session resulted in a story not just about the murders themselves, but a secondary layer concerning the "presence" left behind and three high school students who are affected. Ultimately, the casting also brought along some noteworthy actors in supporting roles: Sean Whalen, Jon Gries, and Conchata Ferrell, whose faces will be familiar even if you might not know their names.
Reviews have been trending negative, though it appears people are more upset about their expectations than the film itself. Matt Donato writes, "The Axe Murders Of Villisca is too familiar a haunted house story to be anything more than generic." To some extent, he is, of course, right. There are only so many ways to tell a ghost story. But you have to admire the team's commitment to originality, whether or not you think they succeeded. The script had been around since at least 2013, and therefore had to be modified when coincidental similarities came up in "The Conjuring". No matter how coincidental, the creators did not want that comparison to be made unfairly.
Noel Murray is more forgiving, writing that "it's refreshing that Egerton and Valenzuela have at least spent some of their 78 minutes beefing up the characters and relationships". Some of this does seem forced, such as how quickly Jess becomes attracted to Caleb, despite knowing nothing about him. But these aren't the one-dimensional teens of a slasher. Murray is also critical, though, asking, "Was an actual horrible ax murder not scary enough to support its own movie?" I think that Murray is offbase here. Yes, you could tell a grim story about such a murder spree. Or you might even turn it into a courtroom drama. As Egerton notes, "The murders were followed by a massive but sloppy investigation and two widely publicized trials, both ending in acquittal." But that was not the point, so it seems unfair to criticize a script (or film) for what it never aimed to be.
If anything, the movie should be applauded for drawing attention to an exciting, unsolved case. Being in Wisconsin -- only one state away -- I had never heard of this case, and now I am compelled to find out more. Those interested might seek out "Villisca" by Roy Marshall, and perhaps this would spark interest in a new book or documentary? Anyway, "Axe Murders" is out now from IFC Midnight, and well worth a visit if you want to explore a trans-generational ghost story in America's heartland.