Just over a year ago, I was sent a DVD screener from area filmmakers Kelly and Tammy Rundle (of the Moline-based Fourth Wall Films) for their feature-length documentary Villisca: Living with a Mystery. I found it to be a beautifully researched and effectively unsettling true-crime thriller, but unfortunately, there never seemed an appropriate time to tell anyone that; since receiving the DVD, the nearest the movie ever came to our area was during a one-night engagement in Cedar Rapids, and so I held off on writing about the film until it made its way closer to the Quad Cities.
On Friday, Villisca will be screened at the Englert Theatre, in conjunction with Landlocked: The Iowa City International Film Festival.
The film's subject matter is touted on the DVD cover as "America's greatest unsolved mystery," which may be a tad hyperbolic, but is no less fascinating for being so: On the morning of June 10, 1912, in the burgeoning burg of Villisca, Iowa, a family of six and two houseguests were found brutally murdered, the apparent victims of both ends of an axe. There were plenty of clues - the murder weapon covered in blood, a skirt draped over a bedroom mirror, a slab of unsliced bacon wrapped in cloth - but they didn't appear to lead anywhere. Or rather, they appeared to lead everywhere; in a matter of weeks, the list of suspects came to include (as the film's theatrical trailer succinctly describes) a state senator, a crazy preacher, a jealous husband, and a tormented drifter.
As the killer was never caught - though a climactic analysis makes a pretty strong case for none of those suspects committing the crime - Villisca is a hypothetical whodunit, and director Kelly Rundle (Tammy serving as co-writer and co-producer) amasses an intimidating amount of found footage and new interviews into a creepy, hypnotic, and thrillingly debatable entertainment.
Yet as its title suggests, Villisca is almost less concerned with the case than the effect it had (and continues to have) on the town's citizenry. The Rundles' chief accomplishment here lies in showing how an atmosphere of mutual mistrust and abject fear turned a once-bustling community - one of the first Iowa townships, we are told, to highly value "music and art and elocution" - into a depressingly insular one, leery of strangers and newly well-armed. On its surface, Villisca: Living with a Mystery is about an octet of killings in a small town. We gradually learn that's only half-true; by the end, this complex and thoroughly impressive work is about the killing of a small town.
Villisca: Living with a Mystery will be screened at the Englert Theatre at 9:30 p.m. on Friday, August 10, and more information on the film is available at (http://www.VilliscaMovie.com).