The Axe Murders of Villisca (2017)

Two teenagers involved in ghost hunting plan to go to the Villisca house where, in 1912, a family was murdered by an axe wielding maniac.  When a charming female outcast joins them, the three of them decide to go into the house after hours and do their own tour and investigation where they discover something worse than the usual for this kind of house. Written and directed by Tony E. Valenzuela based on a story by Kevin Abrams and Owens Egerton. The story is based on a true case from 1912 which is still unsolved.  To bring it to modern day settings, they use the story as a starting point for teenage ghost hunters to go investigate.

This avoids the period piece setting for most of the film while allowing the film to appeal to the teen demographic.  The teen lead characters they built here are fairly basic, typical high school outsiders.  The leads are basically nice kids trying to be good and live their lives against the odds and the local bullies.  Their interest in ghost hunting is a form of escapism and used to fit the story and give them a reason to visit the house as not much else of it is seen before that point.  The characters are simple and feel like they could be actual teenagers even though they are not that fascinating.  The antagonists are somewhat effective while the scares work occasionally but are not consistently scary or even spooky causing the tension to be lacking.  The film relies on the history of the house the characters are visiting quite a lot while not properly building that said history enough from the start which keeps any sense of dread from accumulating.

The possible haunting is discussed and mostly only sparingly until closer to the end when the characters have to deal with it more directly and, without spoiling the film, things go supernatural with quite a few clichés and over-used genre traditions. The lead teens are played decently with Alex Frnka as Jess, the sole female for most of the movie, giving the best performance of the bunch, actually showing a lot of emotions and some variety.  The two lead males are played by Robert Adamson as Caleb and Jarrett Sleeper as Denny who unfortunately feel very interchangeable with each other.  The characters have some differences but they are played very similarly and have looks that could have them playing family in another movie someday.  This leads to having to pay attention a lot more as in the dark scene, they become easy to mix up.

Their performances are ok, but not quite as good as Frnka and honestly, it leaves the audience wanting more.  Stronger performances could have sold the fear factor better and made the film even scarier. Seen in flashback parts, the original axe murders and their possible perpetrator are shown in a different shooting and acting style, making this viewer want to see that as a film instead of the teenagers investigating the situation.  Some of the performances in these parts are a tad over the top, but they work and the décor, costumes, sets, etc work really well and bring more atmosphere to the situation than any other parts of the film.  Perhaps this will be explored in a prequel, but it begs to wonder why they were not explore more this way, giving a historical fiction twist to things instead of the done and overdone ghost hunters situation.

The film in general is not bad or boring, it has a few good to really good moments, but it’s also not nearly as scary as it could and should have been.  The play between found footage and regular style filming works for them as it gives more than one point of view and adds an almost (false)interactive element.  The film is decently acted and entertaining, but not exactly reinventing the haunted house wheel or even using that fact to its best potential result, which is too bad as the film uses a lesser known true case that could have been a truly fear-filled film.