Monday, August 28, 2017

THE AXE MURDERS OF VILLISCA (2016) [Paul's Review]

I watched “The Axe Murders of Villisca” with my Gay Friend.  Many of my friends are gay, but only one specifically requested, nay, demanded that he go by “Gay Friend”—“capitalized, ok?” he insisted—for this review.  I just wanted to get that out of the way at the beginning, since I need you all to know that I don’t go around referring to my friends as “here’s my Gay Friend,” and “this one is my Straight Friend, and over here we’ve got my Millennial Friend, my Vegan Friend, my Republican Friend, my Imaginary Friend, my Feline Friend, etc. etc.  Most of my friends are just friends, except for my cats, which are just cats (calling an 8 pound thing that regularly draws blood from you a “friend” doesn’t seem right, unless it’s an infant vampire who always remembers your birthday).

ANYWAYS.  When Gay Friend thought it might be fun to watch the next Rock, Paper, Hatchet movie with me, I said something like “sure, but it’s probably going to suck.”  And I was worried, because the next movie was called “The Axe Murders of Villisca” and an unpronounceable title does not a shining first impression make.  And if it sucked, then Gay Friend would become the Gay Friend Who Won’t Watch Another Horror Movie With Me Again.  But those fears were unfounded!  Because I’m here to tell you that “The Axe Murders of Villisca” is way easier to pronounce than it looks, and that it’s way better to watch than to pronounce!

And, it was really fortuitous to watch “Axe Murders” with Gay Friend, because it has a gay subplot, which Gay Friend appreciated as nicely handled.  It even allowed him to crack wise when the gay character suggests that they should all get back to Maryville:  "Maryville, ok?"

Axe Murders tells the story of three preternaturally mature-looking high schoolers who break into the locally famous murder house in the Iowa farmtown of Villisca on a ghost-hunting expedition.  Then ghosts show up and mayhem, axes, demon possession and so on is doled out in somewhat perfunctory and not always coherent fashion.
But what makes Axe Murders so much better than the plot suggests are the three characters’ back stories and the nuanced love-triangle between them.   Caleb is the hot loner guy whose father was killed when the two of them botched a robbery.  Denny is his Gay Friend and avid ghost hunter, whose own parents were killed in a car accident.  And Jess is the new girl in town, a transplant from Chicago, who is ostracized after a drunk-sex video of her is spread around the high school.  You get a trauma, and you get a trauma!  Everybody gets a trauma!

Thus, the trip to the axe murders house means different things to each of the trio.  For Denny, it is the final episode of his and Caleb’s webcasting friendship, and his seriousness for the endeavor shows how much the platform of their friendship means.  For Caleb, the whole event is simply a fun escapade, and he doesn’t seem to share Denny’s strong feelings about the fact that they will be parting forever the next day.  And for Jess, the road trip is an opportunity to finally find some friends and possibly move on from her stigmatization.  This means that the whole trip is shot through with both secret insecurities and secret hopes.  Denny doesn’t want to show quite how much Caleb’s leaving is affecting him and is miffed that Jess is tagging along, and Jess doesn’t want to show just how badly she wants to be accepted and thus must try to win Denny’s approval while still flirting with Caleb at the same time, and Caleb. . . well, to tell you the truth, Caleb is a bit of a rock.

(“I don’t mind rocks” Gay Friend chimes in)

But less Caleb just means more screentime for Denny and Jess: a pair of worthy performances from "don't sleep on him" Jarrett Sleeper and the (I swear) correctly spelled Alex Frnka.  Tony Valenzuela deserves credit for directing several pitch perfect scenes that convey the characters’ inner conflicts without overplaying or pandering.

FOR EXAMPLE, when Caleb asks Jess to take a selfie with him, she visibly hesitates.  She doesn’t mention anything about the video that haunts her, but an engaged viewer can tell the mental calculus that she’s performing between wanting to please Caleb and being still burned by the last guy who took her picture.  And that hesitation happens again when she decides to post the photo to social media, which isn’t really about Caleb at all, but rather about daring to wade into the treacherous waters online life again.  It’s a subtle moment, and not even only a symbolic one, as the photo she uploads becomes a key instrument later on in moving the plot forward. 
But once that plot gets far enough along, the ghosts show up and the carefully crafted teenage drama falls more or less apart.  Each character is possessed, apparently by some evil demonic force who lived in Iowa before God, or at least before the 1950s according to the murky messaging of the movie.  And each of their individual traumas is used by the demon to control them, a control which is lost when they look into mirrors.  It’s all a bit hokey with the mirrors, as it seems to move in the Millennial direction (sorry, Millennial Friend!) of suggesting that your insecurities can be solved by admiring yourself harder.
And then there’s simply poor time management by the evil force, which has like a quarter of an hour to walk the possessed Denny off a second-story balcony in what would surely be a failed suicide attempt, but amazingly is unable to even get him off the ledge.  Did the controller batteries go dead?

The ineptitude on the part of the forces of evil is matched by a corresponding ignorance on the part of the forces of good.  (Spoiler Alert) At the end of the film, Caleb goes all white knight and decides to take the fall for all of the shit that went down at the house, including the burning of it.  But they all seem to forget that Jess uploaded the picture of them together to social media and that Denny has been recording everything (and telling his youtube audience about their impending adventure).  There is just a mountain of evidence that puts all of them at the scene, and so Caleb’s well-intentioned sacrifice becomes just another folly of the young (even when played by a 32-year-old actor).

I heard from my writing partner Joe, and he is definitely not as amped on this film as I am.  I imagine that’s because in his review he’s going to talk about how the ghosts and the true-story aspect of the film faceplant in the final third.  But I think all that is just subplot to the interpersonal drama of scarred and flawed young people trying to find honest friendship and acceptance . . . and, I suppose, whatever Caleb’s rock-like hurtling towards meaningless yolo sacrifice means.

Plus, there's Grant Wood cosplay!

For me, and for Gay Friend, I'm happy to report, there’s a level of care in character and restrained dialogue that gives “Axe Murders of Villisca” something unique.  Even the treatment of such loaded issues as homophobia and slut-shaming has a light touch.  They feel like real teenage problems that are faced individually (by thirty-year-olds, admittedly) with different aspects of courage and strategy rather than monolithic and overwhelming social ills as they might have seemed if raised to the level of controlling theme.  

Ugh, is my pedantic academic writing style showing?  Who uses the word "pedantic" but pedants?!  Stop it, Paul!  See, we all have our demons to fight.  Quick, I'm off to gaze at myself in a mirror! 

And while I'm doing that, why don't you check out all the prairieland B-roll . . . Mid-West Coast 4 Eva! 

Questions for Joe:
1.  An overnight stay at the Villisca murder house costs $428.  Given what you’ve seen in this film, is that a reasonable price?

JD: Pfft, if I'm going to get possessed into reenacting the lame romance between an adolescent Christian girl and her pastor, I want to GET paid. At least...$10. $20 if I'm the pastor.

2.  Apparently, in 1912, a teenage girl can be seduced with a piece of hard candy wrapped in cellophane.  Did you know that cellophane was first used for candy wrapping in 1912?  Is there a connection between cellophane and Villisca?

JD: Apparently, cellophane come from cellulose, which is the merriest of molecules!

What was the question?

3.  Which looks more evil, the house they used for the movie or the actual Villisca murder house? 
Real House
Movie Version
JD: The horror fan in me prefers the top, but the adolescent girl in me is like "Why you axin' me?" 

4.  Why does the axe murder house keep so many axes in the cellar?  Or is that a stupid question?

JD: To keep them out of reach of the children. Irony!

5.  So is it a tragedy or a blessing that Jess wins Caleb’s affection right before he goes to prison?  Do you think that relationship has staying power?

JD: She, her boyfriend, and his gay friend were all possessed by ghosts. Her boyfriend destroyed a house and got sent to prison. The question is, which part of this movie is the metaphor for meth?

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