The Austin Chronicle

Other Worlds Austin Review: The Axe Murders of Villisca

By Richard Whittaker, December 7, 2016, 9:00am, Picture in Picture

Which is scarier? Being a teen evading ghosts, or being a teen evading other teens? That's the underlying tension of The Axe Murders of Villisca, a supernatural creeper with a surprising dramatic edge.

Villisca (which has been acquired by IFC Films for a 2017 release) launches from a grisly true story. On June 9, 1912, in the sleepy Iowa town of Villisca, Josiah and Sarah Moore, their four children, and two guests were viciously murdered by axe. There were plenty of suspects, from serial killer Henry Lee Moore to state Sen. Frank Jones, but no conviction.

The house still stands, holding its mysteries and reports of paranormal activity. Or, as Denny (Jarrett Sleeper) calls it, "the boss fight of ghost houses." He and his buddy Caleb (Robert Adamson, The Young and the Restless) are the complete membership of the Maryville Paranormal Institute, but there's initially more interpersonal tension than uncanny menace. The script, by Austin writer Owen Egerton, adds depth, humor, and mournfulness, as Caleb is set to get on with his life, and he'll be left alone in the back-end of Iowa. Then Jess (Alex Frnka, The Inbetweeners), the Chicago transplant to middle-of-nowheresville, complicates their relationship more, tagging along for the MPI's last-ever session.

Of course, the cinematic house turns out to be a lot more menacing than mere legend (and, as depicted here, it's also architecturally more elaborate than the actual house, and its sense of menace is amplified by Transpecos cinematographer Jeffrey Waldron). When the trio return after-hours, the house finds a way of making history repeat itself, using their deepest secrets against them.

Villisca has heart and horror, creating an elegant melding of teen angst and supernatural horror that is as much The Breakfast Club as Sometimes They Come Back.

There's an additional hidden gem: Conchata Ferrell (best known as housekeeper Berta in Two and a Half Men), whose brief appearance as the sardonic but caring principal Mrs. Flanks helps set the tone. This is as much about teen emotional dynamics and the darker side of high school politics as it is about the supernatural, and its simple, dark dynamics capture both with chilling power.

Other Worlds Austin SciFi Film Festival runs Dec. 1-4 at Flix Brewhouse, 2200 N. I-35, Round Rock. Visit for more info.

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