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The face of another
A UK region 2 DVD review of XII (TWELVE) by Gort
 

There are a lot of number movies around at the moment. Just recently I've seen 7 Days, 14 Blades and 24 City. Now we have XII, or Twelve, depending on whether you believe the film itself or the box art. The Roman numerals at least help differentiate it from that new Joel Schumacher movie, which is also called Twelve, and the other eleven films I've so far tracked down wearing that moniker in numeric or word form. So what's this one about?

Well, it's a horror movie, it's low budget, and it's in the recycling business, but such is the nature of the modern, low-budget American horror flick. And for all its borrowings and character annoyances and pop-tart dialogue, XII nowhere near as weak as some have suggested. It is, I'll admit, not hard to see why the suggestion was made. A tolerable genre time-passer it may be, a trail-blazer it is not. But it does have its moments and a couple of genuine surprises.

It starts off with the requisite attention grabber. A newly married couple, smiling like stars of a new lifestyle commercial, drive out of Las Vegas and into the desert. We just know they're heading for trouble. They find it quicker than expected when a red and white pickup pulls up alongside and the driver blows hubby's head off. Holy shit. What's that about?

Over in somewhere-or-other, FBI Special Agent Naughton (he doesn't appear to have a first name) is having a conversation with his daughter on one of those hands-free phone widgets that always makes the user look like a demented dick. A female doctor with a treacle-thick accent shows him the body of a girl whose face has been cut off, apparently while she was alive. It's the third such case. What's the connection? That's what Naughton travels to a small Arizona community whose name I couldn't catch to find out. It's a place where waitress chums Vicki and Claire go running for leisure. Hey, that could come in handy later. It's also a place where Claire's bike-riding ex-boyfriend Shane gets nervous about some dude in a red and white pickup. No-one, of course, takes him seriously. Yet.

Agent Naughton, a pleasant but dull individual by any measuring stick, meets up with local Deputy Sheriff Kent, who as played by Nick Searcy is the most likeable and interesting character in the film. Naughton shows Kent the names of some missing individuals, two of whom were locals, and promises to share more as the case develops. Before he can do so he's involved in one of the film's more successful surprises, leaving Kent to wearily wonder what the connection between these disappearing people could be. It's Claire who remembers that they all served on the same jury (she ought to, she and Vicki were on it too), one that convicted a dude named Leonard Karlsson for doing something bad to a minor. It's never really specified what, but may well have been hinted at by an opening sequence that plays like some prologue footage and a whole bunch of After Effects filters were chewed up, snorted and sneezed onto the screen. The graphics are rather nice, though. What we do know is that Karlsson (sounds a bit foreign, huh?) was attacked while in prison and had his face cut off, which is why he wears a mask when he's torturing people. After all, he wouldn't want his ugliness to upset them, would he.

From here on in we're on familiar turf. Mr. Karlsson in particular is a composite of any number of modern movie serial killers – he's facially disfigured, he wears a crude home-made mask, he dresses like a hobo, has a deep growl for a voice, keeps news clippings of his deeds, and his basement lair is filthy, poorly lit and littered with crude tools and debris. And brown. Always with the brown. The only difference here is that this fellow collects faces, a concept first proposed twenty years ago by John Carpenter during a fascinating BBC-aired round table discussion titled Horror Café. Interesting though the concept is, it does make you wonder why Karlsson shot that guy's head off at the start. Not much of a face left to collect there I'd think.

The acting's OK, but Nick Searcy aside they're a generic bunch, and things really slip when Vicky and Claire are left to carry the dramatic can. Vicky's one of those 'whatever!' movie teens (actually 'teen' might be pushing it here) who accompanies almost every line with a series of head twitches, while Claire is drippy enough to prompt my viewing companion to whoop and applaud when she got punched in the head. Claire's also the film's token virginal nice girl, so is earmarked for likely survival from the moment we meet her, or at least to last longer than her tarty friend.

Writer-director Michael Nickles' ambition to make a horror film in which you cared about the story and characters is certainly laudable, but is scuppered a little by the underdevelopment of both. For comparison purposes try the now twenty-eight year-old Halloween, another tale of a community terrorised by a masked killer, but one whose script, character development, originality and nail-chewing tension remain object lessons in how to deliver the low budget horror goods. XII is certainly better than many of the slashers that followed in Carpenter's wake, but despite good intentions it's neither substantial or narratively interesting enough to stand out from a large and rather mediocre crowd.

sound and vision

So what was this shot on? Film? Digital? Hard to be certain from the image here. Contrast is pretty good, detail is reasonable and the colour reproduction is OK, but darker scenes are a little grubby and have visible compression artefacts. If you sit far enough from the screen you won't see the jagged edges on diagonals that point to an sub-standard video standards conversion, though it's hard to ignore the banding this triggers on Deputy Kent's window blinds when the camera tracks in (on my TV just about everything on the table in front of him was doing a small jaggie dance). But there's a more obvious conversion issue here, one presumably caused by the frame rate adjustment from the 24 of cinema to the 25 of PAL video. Usually this is achieved by speeding the film up by a frame a second, but it's slightly more complicated if the conversion is done at the video stage, and in some cases can result in, well, what we have here. What happens is that the transfer runs smoothly for a second and then very briefly stutters, which suggests the PAL running speed has been achieved by repeating one frame in every 24, producing a momentary but still detectable freeze frame every second. You can't really see it on character movement, but it's clearly visible on panning shots or those in which vehicles move through frame. It doesn't exactly ruin the viewing experience, but it is a little distracting.

The only soundtrack on offer is Dolby 2.0 stereo, which is clear throughout but never really pops, even when the action hots up. Some distinct stereo separation is detectable. No subtitles have been included, which is why I couldn't work out the name of the town.

extra features

Feature Commentary
Director Michael Nickles, lead actress Emily Hardy and producer/composer Tim Montijo share memories of the shoot and some interesting detail about the plot development, casting, effects and production design. It's an amiable enough chat that's peppered with anecdotes and will work even better if you respond positively to the film.

Beneath the Skin (8:31)
The same trio as above talk in person about some of the things they covered in the commentary, with Nickles re-emphasising the importance of story, character and talented performers. Some of his designs for the look of the killer and brief behind-the-scenes footage of set-dressing his truck are also included.

A Shotgun in the Head (1:25)
A short but very neat breakdown of how the opening scene exploding head effect was done, set to some horrid music.

Make Up FX Gallery (3:48)
A rolling gallery of effects makeup stills set to better music than the above, and with intermittent but useful narration by makeup effects supervisor Duke Cullen.

Trailer (1:47)
Enough spoilers here to avoid watching it before the feature.

summary

A stalk-and-slice horror with ambitions to higher things that lacks the plot development, character depth, dialogue and originality to really pull it off, despite a few decently handled elements and an engaging performance from Searcy. Those DVD transfer glitches are irritating, but the commentary is rather good and the short effects extra is revealing, despite the music. Horror fans might like to give it a look, but I wouldn't get too excited.

XII
Twelve

USA 2008
89 mins
director
Michael A. Nickles
starring
Steven Brand
Michael Leydon Campbell
Jeremy Fitzgerald
Emily Hardy
Vanessa Long
Mercedes McNab
Josh Nuncio

disc details
region 2
video
1.85:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
languages
English
subtitles
none
extras
Director, prodiucer and lead actress commentary
Making-of featurette
Effects makeup breakdown
Effects gallery
Trailer
distributor
Chelsea Films
release date
27 September 2010
review posted
24 September 2010

See all of Gort's reviews