The internet, and more specifically, social media, continues to offer up a Pandora’s Box of horrors that people continue to discover, and filmmakers were quick to notice the possibilities delivering terrifying gems like The Den (2013) and duds like FearDotCom (2002). Narrowing the focus even more, apps for your phone have become a source of terror (in theory anyway) too with movies like App (2013), #Horror (2015), and Bedeviled (2017). The other common thread between those three? They are not good.
Countdown is new to theaters and quickly joins their ranks on both counts as it’s about an evil app — and it’s also not good.
The film wastes no time jumping into the fray as teenage friends at a party download the app, simply called Countdown, after discovering its ridiculous but eerie promise of telling the user the exact moment of their death. Most of them see results counting down decades, but one poor sap has only hours to live, and while she tries to alter plans in the hope of avoiding death — a violation of the User Agreement she failed to read — she dies anyway. From there the film shifts to Quinn Harris (Elizabeth Lail), a nurse with a dead mom, a sad dad, and an angry little sister named Jordan (Talitha Bateman), whose life takes a turn when she downloads the app and discovers her own days are numbered.
Like, literally. She has less than three left.
Writer/director Justin Dec makes his feature debut with a premise that pairs elements from films like Flatliners (1990) and Final Destination (2000) with a mysterious app that knows when you’re going to die, but it does far too little with those ideas. Countdown struggles to find its own voice, though, with the result being a fairly generic mashup that, a few laughs aside, fails to entertain with thrills, chills, or anything in between.
Dec’s script raises questions as to why some people have decades to live and others have minutes, but in addition to never really being answered the question feels like an artificially dramatic one — people are dying in the real world just minutes from now while others will live for many, many years. Because that’s how life works? There’s brief effort made to tie feelings of guilt for past “sins” into the argument (ie Flatliners), but that doesn’t really go anywhere. Questions that are never even pondered aloud include who created the app, who uploaded it to the app store, and who dared rate this death-dealer a 3.6 in the app store?
Final Destination feels like the most direct inspiration, though, for a few reasons. There’s a Death-like figure at play here, and the main players are all trying to avoid a death foretold, but more than that, a slight effort is made to highlight the elaborate precision of of time, place, and circumstance that combine resulting in death. The scale is minimal compared to memorable sequences in the Final Destination franchise, but the pieces still have to come together in a particular way. It’s just never a very interesting way. And finally — and most egregiously — Countdown features an un-ironic use of the “surprise” vehicle kill from stage right. At least Dec is open about his inspirations.
The film’s horrors are all in the form of loud, obvious jump scares, so if that’s your bag you’ll be a happy camper here as every beat is telegraphed and blasted with score or sound cues. The app and its devilish creator use hallucinations and other shenanigans to harass and terrify the users, but knowing that — and Quinn and the others do know that — doesn’t stop them from reacting in oblivious and dumb ways all the same. The expected character stupidity carries through the third act, but in their defense, the film’s rules do too. By that I mean the app and its creator have no real guidelines, and while the characters look under the hood into the app’s programming (one of the highlights) it ultimately feels like filler. And not for nothing, but for a film that so prominently features a countdown clock would it
It’s not all bad news, though, as the while the movie fails at horror it delivers a few laughs. The bulk come courtesy of Father John (P.J. Byrne) as a hip priest who believes in demons, or at least really, really wants to believe. He loves weed and GrubHub, he has some great ideas as to how to fight the app, and then the movie decides it’s done with him and just moves on. At least he squeezes in a few gags and punchlines before disappearing.
Countdown is a film designed for horror “fans” looking for a distraction offering lazy, forgettable fun. There’s a place for that, to be sure, but the fun here is so minimal as to be almost nonexistent in a horror thriller that offers no feeling of resolution. If you really want to be scared pick any of the real apps you have on your phone and actually read the user agreement in its entirety. That, my friends, is terrifying.