Welcome witches and warlocks,
Today I will be reviewing the haunted house themed horror movie Villisca (2016) by director Tony E. Valenzuela. Since it offers little in the way of spoilers, I will turn once again to IMDb for a quick plot rundown:
"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."
Loneliness, brokenness, guilt, and emptiness are not often themes that we imagine when we think of horror movies, but this film decided to tackle all of them at once. The way they went about this was by tying each of these elements to one of the main or supporting players which in turn made this an incredibly character heavy piece. Impressively, each of these heavy themes was treated with such sincerity that by the end the emotional payoff for each of the characters was fantastic.
Each of the three leads in this movie seemed perfectly matched to their role. Even most of the supporting players are equally interesting as they layer in just enough nuance to their roles to make even the smallest part seem genuine. The naturalistic feel of the acting would have lended itself perfectly to a regular, non-horror related movie and, to be honest, if they had the same actors playing the same characters I would gladly watch that film.
Given the slow burn nature of this feature, I was beginning to wonder how much horror it would end up portraying. The opening whetted the appetite, but after that it was nearly forty minutes of character or plot development before the scary stuff started happening. That being said, the characters were so easily relatable that the time between the scares flew right on by until they started seriously ramping up the dread. One scene in particular was so well orchestrated that the tension made me feel uncomfortable.
Given the incredibly short runtime, only about seventy five minutes, this film crams quite a bit into its last half hour. I honestly would have liked a bit more time during this section to explain the Reverend Kelly's background. Nearly all of the other characters tied to the background of the house itself have some sort of overarching theme or reason, but his is barely touched upon. Since the Villisca Axe Murders are a true story, we can find out online how he was broken, but the film does not make much mention of the fact that he was considered to have had a peculiar nature and lewd tendencies. Since much of the focus was on how the house attempts to fill in the emptiness in these people with its dark intentions, this one little bit of information would have been welcome.
The spirits of the house also suffer a bit in the translation because occasionally we cannot quite make out what they are saying. It is obvious that they are talking to the characters, but sometimes it was nearly impossible to hear their dialogue the first time through. One of these conversations ends up being crucial to the finale of the feature so I was glad that I was able to make out what was said as it brought a lot of closure to one of the characters. Using rewind and turning up the volume I was able to make it out fine so it seems to just be an audio level issue and not a purposeful decision.
Apart from the occasional sound issue, the rest of the production was on point. The look and sense of atmosphere this film created were a wonder to experience and would definitely warrant a view all on their own. None of that even includes the air of authenticity this movie achieves by filming within the actual Villisca axe murder house.
All in all, there were some minor hiccups which were easy enough to overcome with the internet and rewind so this is an easy feature to recommend. The setting alone makes this worth a look to those who are even mildly curious. Those who love haunted house movies, character-centric pieces, dark thematic elements, or true crime stories are certain to be impressed.
- The Creeping Craig