Best friends Claire (Emily Hardy) and Vicki (Mercedes McNab, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) are diner waitresses stuck in dead-end town in the middle of the Arizona desert, but five years ago both served as jurors at the trial of child molester Leonard Karlsson. Now Karlsson is out of prison, physically and mentally scarred as a result of his routine prison beatings. His hideously disfigured face hidden beneath a bizarre mask, Karlsson trails, tortures and terminates each of the twelve men and women responsible for his incarceration. And now he has the girls in his sights.
Oh joy, another mass-murdering horror hero in a fright mask and boiler suit. However, one should not be too quick to dismiss XII a.k.a. Twelve (possibly destined to be confused with the similarly titled low-budget action opus also released this year) because the build-up is a lot stronger than usual. Writer-director Michael A. Nickles crafts a nicely detailed milieu: shimmering sand dunes and sun-scorched cinematography lay an effective veneer of creepiness, while the dingy desert town is rendered all the more depressing given it’s Christmas. The town is all but abandoned with folks away visiting relatives and the closest thing to the Christmas spirit are hideous decorations inside a lonely old woman’s house and a bored-looking pole dancer in a sexy Santa outfit, going through the motions before a bunch of dozy barflies. As Deputy Kent (an endearingly world-weary turn from Nick Searcy) ruefully admits the atmosphere is soul-sapping, with nothing for bright young things like Claire and Vicky to do.
Nickles tweaks his back-story into a metaphor for Claire finding the strength to relinquish past ties and move on. She is contrasted with old boyfriend and local no-good Shane (Josh Nuncio), who can’t let go of their high school days even though all of his contemporaries have moved on. The strong cast have richer characters to work with and the relationships, particularly that of Claire and Vicky are well drawn with engaging turns from newcomer Emily Hardy and horror veteran Mercedes McNab. Nickles initially confounds our expectations as Vicky - earmarked for slaughter by virtue of her self-centredness - proves a far braver, smarter and proactive character than is common. Claire might be more compassionate, but Vicky thinks on her feet. Of course it does her no good because she is blonde, bubbly and therefore doomed, while Shane joins F.B.I. investigator Agent Naughton (Steven Brand, last seen in the BBC’s Mistresses) as pointless, red-herring characters that disappear from the plot in an abrupt, nonsensical manner.
Things get off to a splattery start as a pair of cheerful road-racing newlyweds have their happiness curtailed by shotgun blast (and hubby’s head blows up like a balloon), but for the initial two acts Nickles cuts back the bloodshed and crafts some suspenseful sequences. Things get a lot less interesting once the characters are trapped in Karlsson’s dungeon and Nickles opts for tedious torture porn with a nasty tongue removal, graphic skin peeling and rampant unpleasantness. It boils down to the usual, protracted face-off between killer and “final girl”, but by this stage haven’t most horror fans been there and done that? XII is at once better than the usual DTV horror tripe and dishearteningly familiar.