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Syfy ramps up creature comforts in new competition series starring budding special effects artists

Premiering: Wednesday, Jan. 26th at 9 p.m. (central) on Syfy
Starring: Host McKenzie Westmore and judges Ve Neill,Glenn Hetrick, Patrick Tatopoulos
Produced by: Michael Agbabian, Dwight D. Smith

You need the right makeup to be a world class special effects artist. The proper materials play an important role but it also helps to be perhaps a bit creepy.

"It takes a lot of time in your mother's basement when everybody else is out having a party or playing football," is the way judge Glenn Hetrick put it during a recent interview session tied to Syfy's new Face Off competition series.

Visions of a dozen pasty-faced, wild-eyed variations on Norman Bates are perfectly logical then. But at least Face Off is about something other than cooking, weight-shedding, singing, dancing, romancing, having the right look or winning through the "art" of conniving. Instead this latest Syfy creature feature focuses on 12 aspirants who'd love to turn you into a zombie, a mutant or maybe even Massive Head Wound Harry.

They'll get their chances in an array of competitions judged by Hetrick (Heroes), Pirates of the Caribbean wizard Ve Neill and creature designer Patrick Tatopoulos (I Am Legend). Your host is McKenzie Westmore, whose great-grandfather George is considered a god in this field. Unfortunately he killed himself with a self-induced lethal dose of mercury while still in his early 40s. Don't try this at home.

The contestants, who include 31-year-old Sergio Cuerra of San Antonio, are quickly put through their paces after minimal introductions in Wednesday's first episode. Following a brief warmup task, in which one gains a week's worth of immunity, they pair off into six teams in a "Spotlight" challenge that requires transforming a model into a human/animal hybrid. As with Iron Chef, you must work with the designated ingredients, which in this case are an elephant, an ostrich and a beetle. No worries, though. These live creatures are only used as visual aids.

Face Off spends a good deal of time showing how the sausage is made. Competitors all work in the same well-appointed la-BOR-atory, so there's also a little time to diss and dissect each other's work.

The judges can be fairly cutting in their criticisms.

"What the duck happened here?" Hetrick asks one team.

"You could never put this on film, even for a kids' show," Neill tells another.

One contestant, an emotional 21-year-old woman "straight out of school," becomes a bit vexed. "I wanna shoot myself in the face in front of you all right now," she says.

Well, at least it's different, even though your basic "reality" competition trappings remain firmly in place. One hopeful will be evicted each week, with one of the judges first intoning, "The person going home tonight is" -- pause at comical length before naming name.

Challenges in future episodes will include applying full-body makeup on nude models, creating a horror film villain and creating new characters inspired by classic fairy tales. And the premiere episode is just captivating enough to make Face Off worth at least a few more looks.

GRADE: B-minus