New take in ‘Axe Murders’

A recently-released horror film which was filmed in part in southwest Iowa draws some inspiration from one of the most notorious unsolved murders in American history. 

The film is called “The Axe Murders of Villisca,” which touches upon the still-unsolved 1912 murders of Josiah B. Moore, his wife Sarah, and their four children, Herman, Mary, Arthur, and Paul, as well as two visiting children, Ina and Lena Stillinger. 

“The Axe Murders of Villisca is the work of first-time feature-film director Tony E. Valenzuela, who lives in Los Angeles, CA. Valenzela has been directing for the past eight years, and is a co-founder of BlackBox TV studios. Valenzuela said a tour of the Villisca House in 2010 was the spark behind getting the film made. 

“I was working on my BlackBox TV channel and wanted to visit some of the most haunted places in America, and I did not believe in so-called haunted houses. I thought we’d go in and film it and put it on our Youtube channel. We spent the night there, and we were given the history of the house,” Valenzuela said. “I was surprised by the violence and that I had never heard the story.  The experience I had in the house was not a good experience. I didn’t enjoy the feelings and thoughts that I had. There was something fundamentally wrong with the house. I’ve never had the experience before, and I haven’t had it since. I definitely don’t want to have the experience again, but it gave me a lot of respect for that subject matter.”

Valenzuela said further research on the house ended up being a “rabbit hole” of information. 

“The more you go into the story, the lives of the suspects, and Reverend Kelly, it’s a bottomless pit almost. The movie is more about my efforts to comprehend and process the murders and my experience. I fictionalized a lot of what happened to us in an effort to make a good movie. I think there are probably two or three movies that could be made out of that story, though I don’t know that I would ever want to do them. I know having gone through this process I’ll never completely understand it.”

Valenzuela said he was visiting with one of the film’s producers when she asked him about what his most intense experience was, and he told her the story of his Villisca experience, and the film really took off from there.

“She told me, that was the film I needed to make. I thought it would be a very difficult film to make, and it was. It’s a fictionalized version of our visit to the house, and tackles the murders simultaneously,” commented Valenzuela. 

Rather than do the film directly about his own experience, the film centers on three kids based on people he knew from high school who decide to stay in the house, and the spirits and events that take place during that stay. The house for the film is not the actual house in Villisca, which Valenzuela said was done with a purpose. 

“I felt like the owners of the house would have been supportive of a decision to film there, but some of the scenes of the film I didn’t want to film there. It didn’t feel appropriate for me to do that. I have a lot of respect for the victims and what they went through,”

While the house is different, Valenzuela said much of the rest of the film was shot right in this area. 

“Every exterior shot of the town of Villisca was filmed in Villisca, as well as road signs and traveling footage. There were only a couple of locations that were not shot in Iowa. The feeling of Iowa, the massive sky, the endless horizon line, I knew there was nothing like that we could replicate in southern California,” commented Valenzuela. 

The film stars Robert Adamnson, Jarett Sleeper, and Alex Frnka, and features several familiar faces in supporting roles, including Jon Gries, Sean Whalen, and Conchata Ferrell. Working with a large cast gave Valenzuela a chance to see how collaborative a process filmmaking is. In addition to the living characters, Ghostly presences are also featured in the film. 

“The Axe Murders of Villisca is about ghosts. Both the kind you hear about in haunted houses, and the ones we carry around every day. We really focused on three of the characters I felt were the most tragic figures in the story,” Valenzuela said. 

The film is available to stream on iTunes, Amazon Prime, Google Play, and Vudu.  Valenzuela is working on his next film, which he describes as a coming-of-age-tale. While difficult to do, Valenzuela said he was very pleased with the finished film. 

“It was a lot of pressure to get it right, but at the end of the day, it was delightful to go through the process. I watched the film on its opening night in Los Angeles and it was the first time I was distanced enough from the process of making it that I could just sit back and watch it. After I saw it, I felt that it was a good film and reflected where I was at the time this was made. I enjoyed it very much.”

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