By Joe (Iowa)
Being so close to Halloween, I’ve been in a perpetual mood for something spooky to watch, especially something I haven’t seen a hundred times already. I was in luck, and so are you. Though I don’t typically think “spooky” when it comes to documentaries, The Ax Man Enigma: The Real-life Horror Behind ‘Slay Utterly’ delivers just that.
I actually stumbled across this film in my Twitter feed. In exchange for following and mentioning another account (@SlayUtterly, an upcoming film “inspired by the Villisca ax murders”), the filmmakers sent me a private link to a short documentary they produced about the unsolved case.
Given the popularity of paranormal “reality” shows, which frequently feature the famous murder house in Villisca, Iowa, I was expecting the documentary to be little more than amateur ghost hunters emulating the paranormal hacks they see on TV. Much to my delight, however, this was a thoughtful exploration of a series of horrific ax murders that remain unsolved after more than 100 years. You read “series” correctly. According to the filmmakers, Villisca was not an isolated incident, and the documentary convincingly ties the historic crime scene to a number of lesser-known murders occurring during a two-year period across the nation’s heartland.
And if you’re into the whole paranormal thing, don’t despair. The filmmakers included some snippets of strange occurrences they experienced during an overnight stay in the house, including a producer being scratched, a door opening and closing on its own, and a ball changing directions multiple times as it rolls across the floor of a bedroom where four children were murdered in their sleep. But it’s not ghosts that make this a scary film.
Though unsolved, the Villisca case yielded several colorful suspects, including a traveling preacher and a state senator. As director Stuart Wahlin notes in the documentary, truth really is stranger than fiction, and The Ax Man Enigma: The Real-life Horror Behind ‘Slay Utterly’ is proof.
Clocking in at around 42 minutes long, the bulk of the film focuses on the crime at Villisca, which is extremely interesting in itself. But when the filmmakers present evidence tying Villisca to several other brutal ax murders, things get really compelling. You’re left with a very unsettling sense that Villisca was not a one-off case of somebody snapping, but rather just one stop made along a ritualistic serial killer’s bloody trail.
One federal agent believed he’d identified the man responsible for all of the murders. The man, who’d just begun a prison sentence for the ax murders of his mother and grandmother, was either a strong suspect, or the perfect scapegoat. Unfortunately, history leaves us little evidence in either direction. Somehow, though, the filmmakers were able to hunt down a descendent of the accused man, who presented a strong case against the G-man’s theory, ultimately ending the film with more questions than answers.
As far as I’m aware, the filmmakers are still offering a private link through Twitter if you follow and mention them. After having watched their documentary, I’m very curious about how they’ll present the story in their upcoming feature, Slay Utterly, which appears to be a modern adaptation.