Released: 24th October
Seen: 27th November
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, Horror is a very silly genre. Almost by design, it’s a genre that will look at something in everyday life and say “What if we did that, but made it deadly”. Stephen King is the master of this, he took cars and cell phones and long grass and found a way to make them terrifying. Sometimes horror also takes something, makes it deadly, and then acknowledges how silly that is. Jack Frost, for example, is about a killer snowman… there is no way on earth to make that scary, so you lean into the comic absurdity of it. So naturally when you hear a plot idea like “It’s an app that kills you”, I kind of expected something a little tongue in cheek… I also expected something fun and I really need to stop doing that because it tends to not happen when I want it to.
Countdown is about an app that can tell you the exact moment you’re going to die, down to the second. This app is, for some reason, downloaded by new nurse Quinn Harris (Elizabeth Lail). She naturally gets assigned to take care of a boy named Evan (Dillon Lane), the one who tells her about this app and how it killed his girlfriend and about how the app is going to kill him and when he dies by falling down some stairs, Quinn takes that to mean he’s telling the truth and proceeds to spend the rest of the film scared out of her mind. Due to plot contrivance, she happens to run into Matt Monroe (Jordan Calloway), another person who downloaded the app and has a similar amount of time left to live as Quinn. The two of them must team up to work out how the app works and if there’s a patch available to make it not kill them.
An idea this stupid should be a lot more fun than it ends up being. I should be sitting there smiling, watching Final Destination but with app jokes. I should see the clock count down and hold my breath because I don’t know what’s going to happen. I should understand at least conceptually how this all works… I don’t, because that implies the film gives half a damn. The death scenes in this film are, at best, shocking because they often involve a loud noise and sudden movement but there’s nothing resembling creativity there. There’s no real tension of any kind because the idea is so stupid and the timing is so bad that 3 minutes feels like 10, so the potential tension of a literal countdown to death is ruined. I certainly don’t get how this app works, apparently if you violate the terms of service (I’ll get to it) you lose some time off your life but there’s no set amount and it’s not consistent in any way. It’s a ticking clock that doesn’t know how clocks work which ruins most of its potential impact.
The film is fortunate to be blessed with a pretty decent cast. Quinn Harris is a pretty likable character and fairly intelligent, except for when she randomly downloads an app that a patient literally says is why his girlfriend is dead but other than that she’s a character I don’t mind following. Same with Matt Monroe, AKA “This PG-13 Horror Movie’s Standard Issue CW Actor Trying To Break Into Movies”. He’s a character who doesn’t get that much to do, but he has some decent lines and Jordan Calloway is probably the best of the ‘standard CW actors who have turned up in cheesy horror movies lately. The one actor who is undeniably amazing is P.J. Byrne as Father John, a hyperactive fanboy priest who thinks it’s so cool he gets to actually fight a real demon and gets to tell the bullshit backstory for the demon in the app (yes, there’s a demon in the app… it’s the one thing I accept about this film). Father John is the one character who seems to get what movie he’s in and how to behave accordingly. I lit up when he came on screen because he was actually entertaining and got the tone perfect… he doesn’t seem to last for that long and is basically written out of the movie before the big climax happens because we can’t have interesting things hanging around for too long, but he’s there and he’s magical.
What’s not magical is that someone forgot to pay the light bill. Look, horror films often take place at night because you can hide things easier and use shadows for terrifying effect, we understand that. There’s a reason why people lose their minds when a horror movie takes place during the day and ends up working… but holy crap, for a good chunk of this film I couldn’t see a damn thing that was going on. There is a difference between low light and no light. Low light would let you do cool things like hide a bad guy in the background or maybe make something feel claustrophobic while no light just makes you look like you forgot to pack the light rig. It doesn’t even accomplish anything… OK, it means you can’t see shit so when they inevitably flash a light on a scary face and make a loud noise the sudden shock will cause the audience to jump and make them believe they just got scared, but they didn’t. They got surprised, I don’t come to horror movies to be surprised. I come here to be scared, so scare me!
Then there’s the sexual assault storyline because this is the appropriate film to put that message into. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it a thousand times, I’m fine with movies putting political messages into the story. Hell, horror is a great genre to put these things in. There’s a film coming out next year called The Invisible Man which seems to just be a film revolving entirely around the horrors of domestic abuse and I’m all for putting this stuff into film… but god damn it, we go from a stupid conversation about an app that kills you to sexual assault and how it’s impossible to report it properly. An important message, no doubt about it and there is a scary realism to the idea that someone in a position of power can try to force themselves on a worker and then accuse the worker of assaulting them so they can get away with it but if you’re going to do that in a horror movie? The abusive bastard dies, that’s how most movies handle this because you need that ultimate catharsis and otherwise it just feels like it’s there for lurid shock value. It’s not well handled and almost feels tacked on to be relevant when it could’ve easily been neatly woven into the story or, I don’t know, not used in a story about a killer app.
Countdown is your bargain-basement horror film that has a fun concept and does the literal bare minimum with it to qualify as competent. It takes itself way too seriously for a film with the tagline “Death, there’s an app for that”. It can’t pick a consistent tone, the characters feel like they’re in wildly different films, the visual aesthetic is a cross between generic and “the lens cap is still on” and there’s nothing scary here. Nothing, surprise is not the same as scared and while there is certainly a place for jump scares, it’s not every 3 goddamn minutes. I did not ask for much, just a fun little horror film about a killer app… turns out, even that was asking too much because I didn’t have much fun.
Also, that sequel bait cliffhanger wasn’t good and god damn it, do not let this thing turn into a franchise. Please, I’m begging you.