Villisca' is a ghost story set in the actual house of the notorious and still unsolved 1912 ax murders. Three outcast teenagers break into the house in search of answers, but discover something far beyond their worst fears.
Tony E. Valenzuela
Caleb (Robert Adamson) and his gay best friend Denny (Jarrett Sleeper) are two amateur ghost hunters living in rural Iowa. Caleb has just completed his GED, after missing out on some high school late in his academic career – due to the fact that he and his father held up a local convenience store. Caleb is now heading off to college, leaving Denny behind. Denny desperately wants one last epic ghost hunt before they part ways. Add into the mix, a new girl out of Chicago and an outsider in the school (she was recorded having sex with one of the school jocks – and everyone has seen it), Jess (Alex Frnka). She befriends the two guys, and they drive off to a nearby town to investigate the “Ax Murder House” in the equally small (and eerily deserted) town of Villisca – hence the title. In reality, this is a true murder house where eight people (six of which were children) were bludgeoned to death with an ax in 1912. The mystery remains unsolved to this day. When our threesome returns to the house in the dead of night – after the daytime tour – things quickly turn supernatural, violent and frankly, confusing. The house brings out the worst of memories and uses this guilt against the three teenagers. Things are further complicated when two high school bullies (one of them the recorder of Jess’s sex act) arrive on the scene.
There seems to be an epidemic of horror films from the past few years – and Villisca is a sometimes ugly example of the problem. As is the case with numerous films I’ve reviewed lately, Villisca starts strong. I was engaged in the character’s history, their rapport and their choices. But once the characters go into the house and the big secrets are divulged, spirits are discovered and stakes heightened, things fell apart. I lost interest. I don’t know if there is a lack of workshopping the script before production begins (on this and the other films I’m reviewing) or if the filmmakers are surrounded by a bunch of “yes-men”, but it seems obvious that the original idea/concept is a good one, sympathetic characters are established, and then there is a total loss of focus/direction and a shortage of ideas when the climax finally rolls around.
Rather than continue down the road to some possible genuine terror, the film takes a very melodramatic turn – helped (or not helped in this case) by the Brandon Roberts score. It felt overblown and overdone, especially during the climax and denouement.
And final character choices after the climax made some sense based on what we’d already seen – I understand why Caleb does what he does – but his selfless choice still felt ridiculous and cheesy.
There are some decently executed “boo” moments, but nothing to keep you up at night. I liked the various make-up work for the ghouls of the house (especially that of the little girl). And the images of the creepy mannequins in the museum/house, situated in the exact locations of the murders a century before – quite disturbing.
The three lead performances are all decent – nothing mind-blowing – but I cared enough about them to join them on their journey. There’s a palpable camaraderie between Caleb and Denny… and some animosity between newbie Jess and Denny. Denny sees the immediate and mutual attraction of Caleb and Jess, bringing out some jealousy. But I believed their relationships, which is why it was such a downer when the script failed to live up to this firmly established and genuine character potential.
As Jess, Alex Frnka brings a goth-Molly Ringwald quality to the film. Her first scene shows her reading Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero in a bathroom stall, when two chatty girls enter the restroom to view Jess’ sex video and gossip about the “new girl”. Eventually, Jess just exits the stall, looks at the girls and; unsure of what to say, simply spews forth an awkward “hi” before exiting. It’s a perfect intro to Jess (and a great acting moment for Frnka), and further supports my feelings that these characters were genuine and likeable and awkward, but were eventually sacrificed to a boring plot and a confusing and contrived ending.
Sean Whalen is generally a welcome addition to any cast. I’ve loved him since I first saw him as Roach in Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs. But like so many other things in Villisca, his performance was over-the-top and unconvincing. And Jon Gries (Uncle Rico in Napoleon Dynamite) was simply wasted in a throwaway role as the museum’s over-zealous and odd tour guide. They’re both good actors, so methinks there’s a problem somewhere on the production staff. Bad writing? Bad direction? I don’t think I’ll blame the actors here, as we know they do good work.
I really enjoyed the small-town feel the film perfectly captured. The scenes in the high school halls all rang true to me, and helped along was the supporting performance from Conchata Ferrell (Two & Half Men) as Caleb’s principal – someone who is genuinely concerned about his future. Again, everything’s very nicely established.
And finally, there’s a kiss during the film – won’t mention which one, as there are several – which held a lot of weight and a lot of promise – for only for about 10% of the movie’s audience.
The bottom line is that the film works as we’re getting to know the characters, and as these outcast personalities get to know one another in a new situation. But when the filmmakers attempt to turn up the heat and the haunts in this supernatural tale – the film completely stalls – and the audience is left with only the initial promise of quality and the awful letdown – again illustrating my point above… that there’s an epidemic of bad follow-through in horror films today and Villisca shows all of those same symptoms.
Villisca received its World Premiere at this year’s LA Film Festival. No wider release dates – theatrical, DVD, VOD or otherwise – are currently available.