Five years ago, Leonard Karlsson (Jeremy Fitzgerald) was convicted of child molestation and sent down for eight long years. He was beaten and tortured by his fellow prisoners, his face horribly mutilated and scarred beyond human recognition. But now he’s back out … and he’s not a happy man!
Meanwhile, one of the twelve good people of the jury that convicted him, and whom he holds collectively responsible for his gruesome prison fate, still lives in the same remote Arizona desert town she was born in: Claire (Emily Hardy) works as a waitress in a small diner where the establishment’s few customers are always the same regular faces. Not much goes on here. Even Deputy Sheriff Kent (Nick Searcy) has to take a two-hour lunch break just to fill up the day. Claire’s ex-boyfriend Shane (Josh Nuncio) is still knocking about, as well: a struggling alcoholic who just can’t accept that their relationship is over and who still hangs around, hoping she’ll come away with him when he finally moves out of this dusty, disintegrating tumbleweed town. If he ever does, that is: at the moment he’s too busy picking fights with ex-friend turned surly bar-owner Harry (Joe Nunez) as the afternoons drift by in the desert heat haze. Even Claire’s best friend Vicki (Mercedes McNab) wants to escape, and would like her to come too; but Claire just can’t seem to gather the courage to leave her dead-end small town roots behind.
One day, an FBI agent shows up with a list of local names to show to Deputy Kent. A number of people have been going missing and the only known connection is that they all came from this particular town. Agent Naughton (Steven Brand) would rather be back home with his young daughter as Christmas approaches, but instead he finds himself holed up in the one run-down hotel in town, while he tries to find the link that will explain why all these people are being targeted. When she and Deputy Kent find out about the list, Claire realises that all of the names of the disappeared also served alongside here on the jury that convicted Leonard Karlsson – as did Shane, Vicki, Harry and several other locals. When a menacing red pick-up truck tires to run Shane’s bike off the road and Claire notices a vehicle of the same description parked just outside the home of another jury member who later also disappears, she becomes convinced that Karlsson is out to get them all. But even she can have no idea just what gruesome fate the masked killer has in store for them.
An uncomplicated low-budget slasher of a traditional, ‘80s vintage, “Twelve” (which was marketed under the Roman numeral version of its title, “XII”, in the US) won’t be breaking any records for originality or execution. But actor turned writer and director, Michael A. Nickles, does manage to take the best ideas of the classic ‘80s Slasher formula and give them a slight twist and a kink here and there, which proves just enough to provide the film with the surprises and unexpected detours needed to keep a jaded audience on its toes. Not all the most heroic characters last very long and some of the potential victims on the list don’t even die at the hands of the killer, but meet their fate through other means. The setting is unusual: a dusty hick town that seems sparsely populated yet claustrophobic and inhabited by people who for some reason are unwilling to face their demons and so appear condemned to live out the rest of their lives in this man-made purgatory. Naturally, the film’s serial killing maniac – soon nicknamed The Skinner, for what will become obvious reasons – plays the role of the ‘demon’ who comes looking for them instead, and is the personification of the punishment they are to receive for not spreading their wings sooner.
Karlsson, played by stunt co-ordinator Jeremy Fitzgerald, is a fairly straightforward composite of most of the usual suspects in the world of Slasher movie maniacs: a greasy boiler suit, a blank-faced mask and gross facial disfigurement – the movie inspirations for Karlsson’s ‘Skinner’ killer hardly need me to spell them out. Although the raw skeletal features of the stalker, developed by special effects supervisor Duke Cullen, also add a dash of Doctor Phibes to the formula, which works nicely. Nickles takes a cue from the original “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” by pitching most of the action in the daytime and having the whole movie take place during the course of one day and one night, bringing a sense of urgency and oppressive inevitability to proceedings. The killer’s basement lair, which becomes the location for the climax of the film, is suitably dark, rusted and dingy-looking, and the film inevitably doffs a cap to modern horror sensibilities when it is revealed how Karlsson isn’t just content with killing his victims, but also needs to torture them slowly, recreating the manner in which he himself was made to suffer in prison. Thus, victims are strapped down with their head in a vice and forced to endure their tongue being wrenched out with pliers and their face cut with a blade and peeled away from their skull, the bloody remnants then being placed in a makeshift gallery recreating the jury who originally condemned him.
Where the film remains true to its 80s influence is in its commitment to shading its characters and in eliciting some decent performances from its cast. Everyone gets some kind of a back story or some kind of quirk of personality, which goes a long way towards making things feel far more affecting and disturbing for the viewer when they meet such a grisly (and sometimes completely unexpected) end. The film has a much slower build up than most other modern films of its type, and aside from a sly “Pulp Fiction” referencing exploding head gag right at the beginning, it takes its time coming to the gory stuff, and in actual fact is a great deal more convincing with the suspenseful sequences, which come as we approach the climax (and involve newcomer Emily Hardy and Mercedes McNab of “Hatchet” fame attempting to deal with a situation that rapidly spins out of control as all authority figures desert them) than it is when attempting to mimic the grim nihilism of a torture porn pic.
The film comes to UK DVD thanks to Chelsea Films. The anamorphic transfer looks a little murky and low in contrast but the disc features a nice selection of extras. The commentary track features writer and director Michael A. Nickles, producer/composer Tim Montijo and actor Emily Hardy in what becomes a good humoured exposition on the trials and travails of low budget film-making on a twenty-day shoot, most of which is spent in a freezing desert. We learn that many of the sets in the town of Palmdale needed little set dressing to make them look run-down and gone to seed. There are the inevitable film-makers’ regrets about things that would have been done differently if more time or money had been available, and actors’ tales of trying to act in adverse conditions or, in this case, run in unsuitable shoes etc.
A ten minute featurette on the making of the film is included called “Beneath the Skin” and features Nickles on his desire to make a film which depended on having good actors and developed its characters rather than just tried to get by on gory effects. Composer Tim Montijo and Nickles talk about the film’s atmospheric score and special effects supervisor Duke Cullen discusses some of the make-up effects the film deployed. Production designer Kurt Rauer appears, and talks about the work done on the killer’s red pick-up truck to make it fit in with the film’s aesthetics.
“A Shotgun in the Head” is a quick tour through the special effects and CGI processes needed to create the exploding head sequence seen at the start of the film. (1 minute, 30 seconds)
An animated gallery of photographs from the special effects workshop with a commentary by Duke Cullen runs for 3 minutes, 47 seconds.
Finally a trailer rounds off the disc’s extras.
There are one or two implausibilities in the film’s story (not least the fact that Emily Hardy’s character looks barely twenty-years-old and so would have been only about fifteen when she was supposed to have been on the jury in a child molestation trial!). One character, also on the jury, turns out to be a known drug dealer who brews up crystal meth in his trailer – I’m no expert in legal matters, but come on!
Leaving aside these kinds of issues, though, “Twelve” works a great deal better than one would imagine, and represents a return to more innocent, less cynical times in the horror genre – well, at least as ‘innocent’ as you can call a film where most of the cast get their faces cut off and their tongues pulled out!