As far as “unsolved mystery” horror films go, The Axe Murders Of Villisca is nothing more than generic at best. Why prey on such a famed case in – wait, let’s rewind quick. Are you even aware of this tragic Iowa slaughterfest? Let’s revisit June 9th, 1912. According to legend, a family was brutally murdered at night by a axe-wielding maniac who was never arrested. One by one, the Moore family was beaten to death – some with the axe’s bluntest side, others hacked and slashed. A traveling Presbyterian minister confessed to the murders, claiming he heard windmills in his head before blacking out – but no convictions were made, and the deed went unpunished.
This brings us to writer/director Tony E. Valenzuela’s ghost story spinoff, which sees three modern-day teens sneak into one of America’s most haunted locations. Caleb (Robert Adamson) and Denny (Jarrett Sleeper) already had a guided daytime tour of the Villisca house planned – making one final paranormal investigation video before Caleb leaves for Omaha – but Jess (Alex Frnka) is a last minute tag-along, after Caleb sticks up for her in school. The three leave Maryville with spooky discoveries on their mind, and are greeted by the house’s guide, Greg (Jon Gries). Grisly details are recounted and the murder weapon is shown off, but then Jess wanders off (after hearing voices) and gets them kicked out. Denny is angry, so the lone female suggests a nighttime break-in. What could go wrong when you’re staying somewhere with a paranormal history? Oh, just possessions, unwanted guests and a fight for survival.
The Axe Murders Of Villisca shines brightest when flashing back to the nineteenth-century attack. Sean Whalen plays the psychotic minister who slaughters each Moore, as he walks room to room, splattered with blood like a Jackson Pollock painting. Valenzuela gets to depict a most unhinged true crime reenactment with historical roots, and Whalen goes full I-hear-voices lunatic with the most gleeful expression on his face. This is our introduction, stepping into a nightmare of the nastiest intentions.
Then, the illusion vanishes in a puff of smoke. We meet Denny riding a Vespa-like scooter as he picks up Caleb for his last day of school, complete with a miniature nip of vodka that Caleb sips (who doesn’t rock the whole shot at once?!). There’s some “outsider” exposition stated when local jock-asshole Connor makes fun of Denny for getting suspended (something to do with “sucking a guy off under the bleachers”), which results in Caleb fighting back and obvious tension. This only gets worse when we meet Jess, sporting a new My Chemical Romance fan look because of her embarrassing amateur porn video that Connor uploaded online (drunk girl at a party is taken advantage of by a scumbag jerk). Cue their unlikely meet-up, Caleb inviting Jess on his bro-date, and Denny’s obvious jealousy.
You might as well fast forward past tour guide Greg and his lecture in American murders, because the sequence only serves one real purpose – Jess finding a piece of candy (later ties are revealed with little significance). Otherwise, Denny already researched the history of Villisca and spends most of the scene finishing Greg’s sentences. Hell, Denny could lead the damn tour himself (this might even be the scene’s intention). Unfortunately, Valenzuela feels like he’s just running through the motions of typical haunted house constructs because of Denny’s know-it-all nature, while mannequins who represent the dead Moores fail to send a frigid chill. Not a great start for horror-seekers, and the first-person camera views certainly don’t help.
Then the crew returns for some late-night investigating, complete with dousing rods, candles and negative attitudes – everything a good ghost hunter needs. At this point, there are no real rules established for whatever demonic presence haunts the Villisca house, which only blurs actions. It all starts with Denny lashing out towards Jess, calling her a slut and whatnot. Then Caleb sticks up for his new crush and not his long-time BFF, and we’re confused by the immature and childish hatred. It’s all superfluous drama without reason, and that’s before any of the “real” horror starts.
Once negative entities present themselves, The Axe Murders Of Villisca becomes even more incoherent. Apparently whatever evils reside inside the Moore’s old house can possess people, make them hallucinate, physically harm people and really do whatever it/they want. No limitations are established, and we’re given one of those ghost stories that becomes an unrestrained question mark so caught up in obvious influences. Eyes turn to black pools whenever one of the house’s inhabitants enters Caleb or his buddies, but other characters don’t notice? Dead souls want to kill all those in the house, yet the tiniest Moore ghost sways the angrier beings? It’s all a whirlwind of expected haunted ideas without any fleshed-out path, and an ending that creates even more questions with an “OMG” reveal that’s more “Uh, WTF?”
The triangular chemistry between each leading character is actually fine when they’re not being cocks to one another, but this obvious allegory for accepting our pasts is without thrills, fun or much substance. The Axe Murders Of Villisca tries to up the “deadly house” game, but neither Tony E. Valenzuela nor co-writers Owen Egerton and Kevin Abrams find individuality despite retelling such a storied crime. It’s more a montage of creepy moments – like a horror music video – than any kind of worthy tormentor. Maybe base-value horror fans will embrace minimal “enjoyment” given a lax appreciation of darkly-lit-room “scares,” but even these sentiments are suspect. You’ve seen it all before – man, I feel like I’m saying that a lot this January.
The Axe Murders Of Villisca is too familiar a haunted house story to be anything more than generic.