Villisca is a movie that initially appears to have been made primarily to showcase the really creepy production design, with a story built around it. Said story, however, is at least half true: it builds on an unsolved murder case from 1912, and the Iowa location of the crimes, which really has been turned into a tourist attraction (the movie doesn’t look to have been filmed at the real place; a question to the publicist on this topic did not receive a response as of publication, but the credits list California shooting locations).
It’s the second part of the story that doesn’t quite hold up upon inspection. Teens with a YouTube channel sneak in to record a video tour and get viral traction. There’s no need to do that, and no strong likelihood they’d get a ton of views, when there is in fact an official virtual tour of the house already available online. The current owners of the place even allow people to camp out in the house overnight, so long as they pay a security deposit, and knowing all this defuses the premise just a bit. That, and the fact that there also exist at least two other movies about the Villisca murders. But let’s say you don’t know that, going in, as I did not. Most moviegoers won’t have previously known about the Villisca house, so how are they likely to react as utter newcomers to the tale?
I’m going to guess reasonably well. Villisca starts strong, leaning heavily on the simple, scary effect of digitally blacking out the eyes of the possessed, as a crazed Reverend (Sean Whalen, best known forever as the Aaron Burr fanatic in that old Michael Bay “Got Milk?” commercial) takes an ax and gives a poor family a bunch of whacks. Whalen, like the other familiar actors Conchata Ferrell and Jon Gries, seems like he was brought on set to put in maximum effort for minimal shoot time, and is smartly utilized to add experienced acting chops around the edges.
Then it’s back to the present, so we can meet our three leads: high schoolers who, as you may not be surprised to learn, look significantly older than they’re supposed to be. On his last day of school, moody and unambitious Caleb (Robert Adamson) comes to the defense of transplanted Chicagoan Jess (Alex Frnka) when she’s slut-shamed over a sex tape. Appreciative and more than mildly attracted, she later shows up to Caleb’s house to thank him, only to find that he and his best friend Denny (Jarrett Sleeper) are about to head out and shoot their latest haunted location video. Caleb immediately invites her along—and yes, fans of The Room, Denny thinks that two’s great but three’s a crowd. Bullied for years for being gay, Denny carries a barely secret torch for his best bud.
Even though the opening sequence clearly implies an evil force is at work in the Villisca house, it looks for a while like the movie might entertain the suggestion that it’s all in everyone’s head, a la Session 9. This becomes especially suspect when Jess makes the ultra-dumb mistake of posting an Instagram from the location they’ve illegally snuck into, and her evil ex shows up for revenge. Everyone in the house has metaphorical demons and regrets, and the energy of the house brings out the worst in everyone. But yeah, there are literal demons too. The CG-eyes are a Chekhov’s gun: you don’t show eye sockets going supernaturally black in the beginning unless they’re going to kill people again by the end.
This proves to be a bit of a self-made trap for director Tony E. Valenzuela, creator of YouTube horror channel BlackBox TV (on which he himself filmed videos from the Villisca house years ago). In riffing on a true story that remains at least partially a mystery, he cannot decisively solve it, and opts for tying two of the most popular theories together, while hedging bets on why exactly things happened that way. Had he simply opted to invent a murder house of his own, few viewers would have known the difference, and he could have created a more cohesive solution. Effective scares are generated with his phantoms, but the story could have reached another level if it had messed with our heads a bit more.
Villisca earns three burritos for being decent entertainment. Based on a true three-burrito meal I actually had that didn’t fill me up but was mostly tasty.
images: MBC PR
Luke Y. Thompson has been a movie critic and other stuff like that since 1999 and is currently weekend editor at Nerdist. Also a Twit.