After the moderate success of Clark Bernstein’s Dreidel of Dread — the first film in his and writing partner Jerry Skwiski’s “Holiday Horrors” trilogy — the duo set to work on The Twelve Slays of Christmas, set for release in early December 1992. Reaction was mixed regarding the ridiculous ending of Dreidel (the killer literally steps out of the shadows and is revealed to be a character no one has even spoken to throughout the course of the film) and the duo said in stated reports that they wanted to make sure there was no chance audiences would feel cheated this time around. How well they kept this promise is up for debate, though, as reaction to Twelve Slays was even more mixed.
The film opens approximately one week after Dreidel, with Detective Reuben Goldman (again portrayed by Tommy Cline) still recovering from his encounter with the Dreidel Killer. He isn’t given much time to rest though, as a young man named Johnny has been found murdered in the city park. His body is strung up in a tree, a noose tight around his neck. Pinned to his shirt is a note with the words “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…” The note is signed “S.C.” Cline is once again perfect in the role of Goldman, and he’s one of the only things that stays consistently good throughout the trilogy of films, even when given shoddy material. And unfortunately, there’s quite a bit of shoddy material in this film.
From the beginning, the production was mired in problems. Bernstein and Skwiski reportedly couldn’t agree on a story, and so each turned in separate ideas to the studio, who in turn hired a young writer named Mel Kirkland to mold the best parts of each treatment into a working script. Kirkland delivered a first draft in early February 1992, a mere month before shooting was scheduled to begin. Executives at Liberation Films were happy with his draft and pushed forward with shooting.
The mood on set was tense, with Bernstein and Skwiski refusing to speak to one another without lawyers present, and this detachment comes through in the film, with many scenes falling flat and the actors seemingly unsure of what to do, as if Bernstein had forgotten how to do the one thing he’d done reasonably well on the last film.
The murder of a girl named Lisa and another calling card (“On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…”) leave Goldman feeling helpless to stop the murderer. He visits the Dreidel Killer in prison and for whatever reason, the convicted murderer seems to know a lot about the ongoing case. In the previous film, we spent no real time with the killer after he was revealed so seeing him played as a psychopathic genius is slightly strange. He delivers enough expository dialogue that just about anyone would be able to figure out the film from that point forward.
As it turns out, a man dressed as Santa Claus is committing the murders (information which was carelessly given away in the marketing materials), and, like the first film, his motive and identity are ridiculous. Goldman is somehow able to piece it all together, and despite Cline’s acting ability, even he has difficulty selling Goldman’s pure luck in the case.
Along the road to the finale, there’s a ludicrous phone conversation with the Santa Claus Killer, where he tells Goldman that if he doesn’t find him by December 25th, he’ll disappear forever. The Dreidel Killer escapes from prison. Goldman finalizes his divorce (even though it’s never mentioned at all in the previous film). All of these moments come to a head in an abandoned church, where both killers and Goldman’s ex-wife appear, complicating matters even further. It’s a jumbled mess that makes absolutely no sense. It’s almost like Kirkland got lost while trying to piece together both sets of ideas from the two men and just sort of slapped together something that would end the movie at a studio-approved moment, setting up for the final chapter, 1994’s “The Kwanzaa Killer.”
There’s no real reason to ever watch The Twelve Slays of Christmas other than Tommy Cline’s once again excellent performance. He’s the only thing keeping this movie afloat, but even he must’ve sensed the material was a little weak and there are a few scenes where you can tell he’s become frustrated and upset. There’s a particularly sad moment towards the end of the film, when Goldman shouts, “I don’t know what to do!” where it seems he’s just talking to the director and not acting anymore.
Watch The Twelve Slays of Christmas only if you want to a watch a cinematic train wreck by two flash-in-the-pan creatives who thought they had more talent than they actually did. But at least it’s not as bad as The Kwanzaa Killer.