Tv & Film
‘The 12th Victim’ Review: Showtime Docuseries on Spree Killings Gets in Its Own Way
There are some smart and even provocative ideas motivating Nicola B. Marsh’s four-part Showtime docuseries The 12th Victim, which aims to seperate and rehabilitate Caril ann Fugate from the legacy of notorious spree killer Charles Starkweather, whom she accompanied — whether willingly or unwillingly is the matter up for debate — on a multi-state rampage that left 11 people dead in 1958.
Fugate, still alive and now living in Michigan, has spent decades trying first to appeal her conviction, then for parole and finally for a full pardon. The 12th Victim, which features Oscar winner Morgan Neville among its producers, focuses less on clearing Fugate’s name in a legal sense and more on clearing her name in a cultural sense. The documentary targets the true crime genre and the way Hollywood’s mythologizing of society’s darkest and most unspeakable elements can become a proxy for the truth. This is especially true in cases like the Starkweather/Fugate murders, where memories of a nightmarish event 60+ years in the past have been generally superseded by the fictionalized spin on events made infamous in films including Badlands, True Romance, Kalifornia and Natural Born Killers.
Marsh’s points are good ones and persuasive ones. The documentary, unfortunately, is marred by one questionable irritating storytelling choice after another, a cumulative weight of small missteps more than any single, grand blunder.
Acknowledging that the facts of the Fugate/Starkweather case may have been lost in a historical blur, the series begins with a full hour dedicated to the exhaustive recapping of the basics of the crimes, which were probably more grotesque than casually curious genre fans were aware of. It was a spree that started with the killing of Fugate’s mother, stepfather and two-year-old sister, and would briefly paralyze Nebraska and neighboring states as victims included a pair of high-school honor students and one of Lincoln’s most powerful couples. The murders were gory and many had a sexual component.
It was a pivotal historical moment and the case captured national attention in part because of the burgeoning availability of television and the expansion of television technology that facilitated day-to-day filmed coverage. That filmed coverage drew attention to Starkweather, a leather-jacket-wearing James Dean wannabe who, at 18, seemed to confirm an increasingly paranoid society’s “What’s the matter with kids today?” delinquency fears. Charles Starkweather was monstrous but fathomable. Caril Ann Fugate, at only 14, became a tabula rasa onto which civilians could project almost exclusively negative and damning thoughts.
The second episode transitions to the post-spree railroading of Fugate; the third episode to her time in prison; and the fourth episode to trying to make sense of Fugate/Starkweather as a phenomenon and to the decades of failing to properly grapple with why the narrative in the first episode has remained so pervasive (even when so many of the injustices of the second episode feel, in retrospect, so obvious and, well, unjust).
The series is limited by Fugate’s absence. I understand why she wouldn’t want to participate. She’s 79, she’s had health issues and, especially in the ’80s and ’90s, she went on a tour of various TV programs — that the self-explanatory F. Lee Bailey syndicated series Lie Detector even existed is a mind-boggling thing — telling her story. But as somebody mentions in the really, really long credit sequence, Fugate and Starkweather were the only two people who actually know what happened on the spree. Marsh’s basic thesis for the documentary’s credulity when it comes to Fugate is that her story never changed and Starkweather’s did, so the series makes no effort to investigate or reinvestigate anything tied to the crimes. If you know the story and its details, you will learn nothing new or even re-contextualized.
It’s much easier for Marsh to argue that law enforcement felt the need to punish more than just Starkweather and, responding to accusations of negligence in the early stages of the case, the opportunity to scapegoat Fugate — by any unethical and corner-cutting means necessary — was irresistible. The series appropriately connects that irresistible urge to why it has been similarly irresistible for Hollywood to turn Charles and Caril into a Bonnie-and-Clyde redux instead of the older man with an IQ of 70 and the traumatized teen girl they probably were.
Even with Fugate absent as a primary source, Marsh has access to actual interviews from the time, re-enacted transcripts and more to make sure that both Fugate and Starkweather’s voices are here. She also populates the documentary with an assortment of variably connected talking heads. There are Lincoln residents who claim to have known Caril (but rarely offer anything of substance): random people associated with different TV movies about the case (though nobody from any of the bigger movies inspired by it): and some truly interesting figures like the warden of the women’s prison where Fugate resided and a family she nannied for after her release. Linda M. Battisti and John Stevens Berry, who wrote the book that loosely inspired the series (and gives it the ghoulish title that I find troubling on a different level), fill in any gaps and contribute some interview audio as well.
So where are the little irritations that finally turned me on the series? I hate documentaries that use psychologists/psychiatrists to play armchair expert on living subjects they’ve clearly never met. There are two of those here. I’m wary of the need to impose current meaning on historical events if it isn’t done with tact; there’s a leap here from the Starkweather/Fugate case to the importance of believing female voices in modern movements like #MeToo that the series really flounders in trying to make.
There are also space-filling ideas that just don’t work at all, like the several minutes dedicated to a lip-reader interpreting a conversation from 1959 footage of Caril and her sister. There are re-enactments that blur lines of fact and fiction in ways that are more distracting than enriching. And while there’s actually an impressive amount of footage from the period, there’s a lot of repeating of clips and still images as lazy filler.
More annoying is that the connection between the case and the films it inspired should be the most intriguing part of the documentary, which begins with a montage of clips set to the Carl Orff composition used in Badlands and True Romance. But the documentary’s cultural analysis is truly shoddy, failing to distinguish in any way between the ways Badlands or Natural Born Killers or David Lynch’s Wild at Heart or Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska” are using the iconography and resonance. To treat them as interchangeable and interchangeably exploitative is a dead-ended conversation. I get the unspoken pillorying of the film writer who dismisses his own responsibility to be introspective with “I figure if you’ve been convicted of your crimes, then you no longer really deserve respect.” But not all of these films operate under that principle and several, including Wild at Heart, are very obviously offering commentary on exactly the things the documentary suggests Hollywood has been remiss in interrogating.
Enough of The 12th Victim is convincing that I suppose you can watch it, then rewatch some of the connected movies, and have the substantive conversations that the series starts, but stumbles before completing.