IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 90 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Teenager Courtney is convinced by her friends to download Countdown, an app that predicts how long a user has left to live, and is told she has only three hours to live. After avoiding getting into a car with her drunk boyfriend Evan, she receives a notification stating that she has broken the “user agreement” before being killed as her timer reaches zero. At the same time, Evan crashes his car and is admitted to a hospital. Nurse Quinn Harris is dismissive of his claims about the app and downloads it herself – something which soon makes her already complicated and hassle-filled life even worse….
Several times during Countdown I felt like cheering when characters threw their phone to the ground, at one point from a very great height. They did it, of course, to try to save their own lives, but there was something liberating about it. I’m of no doubt that our addiction to and domination by our phones is not at all a good step in our evolution. Not that I’d expect a film like this to agree with me, though I did initially get the sense that it was going to try to serve as a commentary on the dark side of how we have allowed technology to take over all aspects of our lives. This was not followed through though. However, it’s certainly one of the better teen horrors of late, in some ways a rather neat techie take on Final Destination and The Ring [or should that be Ringu?], which of course have already served as partial inspiration for the dire Wish Upon and the okay Friend Request. Not being at all the target age group, I’ve learnt to expect and accept things such as the scares to be mostly just “BOO!” moments, there being little real intensity, there being little explicit gore, the characters to be on their phones 24/7, and the pace to be so fast that scenes rarely have time to breath causing old Doc here to sometimes have trouble keeping up. But Countdown, for a start, contained two really effective scenes of horror that provided Yours Truly with some genuine shivers – which in his eyes would make it worthy of some praise even if there wasn’t anything else to rave about. The first is when somebody is on the toilet and the camera tracks a pair of feet, occasionally showing the bottom part of a long finger-nailed hand with a hair hanging off it, through the partitions of toilet stalls. It’s finished by one of the typical poor-looking CG double-jointed turns you often get these days, but never mind. The second is a nice variation of the “whose hand was I holding” bit from The Haunting when a woman thinks she’s woken up with her boyfriend’s arm around her but actually he’s in the kitchen and – well – you can guess the rest!.
It’s often hard for us older horror lovers to get frightened or shocked by films these days because we’ve spent the best part of our lives watching this stuff, and there seems to be little left that can properly affect us. So when a film does work well in this way, even if it’s in just a few places, it’s a wonderful surprise. But Countdown also has a surprising dark, even morbid, edge to it as well which the bright look of the daytime scenes, upbeat music tracks and comedy relief fail to totally take over from. In fact the laughs in this film, which mostly stem from certain supporting characters – notably a sarcastic phone salesman named Derek [Tom Segara] who turns out to be one of those super hackers in what has admittedly been a very lazy plot device for some time now, and Father John [P.J. Byrne, admittedly rather snarky in the Marvel manner], an expert on demonology who’s had no real experience and is therefore elated when he gets involved – don’t intrude on the horror too much unlike, say, IT: Chapter Two. Saying that, one can of course still find a very dark comedy in elements of the premise, especially the way that any phone that has the killer app makes a horrible sawing-type noise and produces a notification saying that the person concerned has broken the “user agreement” because he or she has done something different from originally planned. I could faintly hear some nervous laughter on a couple of these occasions in the auditorium and during the one after I was unable to hold back a chuckle myself. But there’s nothing wrong with that, and it doesn’t really affect the mood or the tension, neither of which are especially powerful if you compare them to many other films, but which are a bit stronger than I certainly expected after some of the similar offerings that I’ve sat through of late.
So we open at a party, with a few shots of poorly acting extras in the background that, now I’ve mentioned them, you can just ignore. Of course nearly everyone stops what they were doing to download this app that tells the user how long they will live. Everyone is informed that they will live a long time except for Courtney who will perish in three hours. Refusing to let her blotto boyfriend Evan drive her home, she decides to walk, and a rather Halloween-esque [original of course] mood of terror arrives and is surprisingly strong as she walks down deserted nighttime streets to sinister wide shots to be scared by a hooded man following her, then a pile of bags that may or may not comprise a sinister figure too. Personally I always find it especially chilling when you’re not sure whether what you’re seeing is something nasty or not. Returning home, having broken her “user agreement”, she’s pulled into the air by an unseen entity and dropped down in a bloody pulp [you can vaguely make it out despite it being deliberately out of focus] as her timer reaches zero. At the same time, Evan crashes and a tree branch goes right through where Courtney would have sat, though it would have helped if we’d seen this act too. Never mind, knowledge of the app is soon passed by Evan to workers in the hospital where our heroine works. Quinn has just passed her exam to become a proper nurse, but is being sexually harassed by her boss Dr. Sullivan. I haven’t read any other reviews of this film, but I imagine that this aspect has been criticised by some as being unnecessary and crass. I do think that it would have been more effective if it had been built up rather than have him virtually try to rape her in their second scene together, and Peter Facinelli does rather act the character in an unnatural manner. This person seems to exist only to conveniently move the plot along much later. But this does increase the vulnerability of, and therefore sympathy for, Quinn. This is somebody who’s already terrified. Her home life isn’t that much better, with her having a very strained relationship with her younger sister Jordan following their mother’s death.
Soon Evan is also killed and Quinn procures his phone, soon learning of Courtney’s death and that similar things have happened to other app users although they are widely regarded as fake. She starts to see visions of a dead Evan and a demon. Buying a new phone only results in the app installing itself on it. And then Jordan downloads it too. She befriends Matt, whose Countdown app states he will die a few hours before Quinn, and they set out to battle this seemingly unstoppable digital curse. Maybe Derek and Father John can help? Most of the plot turns can be telegraphed, and, while it’s nice to see a Devil Rides Out-style protective circle make an appearance, the scene doesn’t make much of an impact and brings in an element of guilt virtually out of the blue involving three of the main characters which could have been interesting if more had been done with it, but instead is just an awkward addition and comes across as being far too coincidental. Things that John says are contradicted by some of the things that happen – though maybe this was deliberate so that what sometimes seems to be a surprisingly Christian-themed horror for our times is actually intended to be a bit more subversive? It’s hard to tell. Scenes where the demon’s powers suddenly stopped working so certain things can happen can only be put down to bad writing though, and there are a few bits of cringe-worthy dialogue, though not as much as one might expect. Literally no one reading the terms and conditions until quite a way through the film isn’t really believable because while, yes, not many people read terms and conditions of apps in reality, surely they would for this specific app, one that tells you when you’re going to DIE? And if you think about it, a hell of a lot of folk would be dying very soon if they downloaded it, though I guess that would require the demon to be in more than one place at one time, which it seems to be incapable of. Just move countries and you’ll probably be fine!
The demon itself is undeniably generic in appearance but is commendably kept only partly in show. Elizabeth Lail makes for an especially likeable and also intelligent heroine [unlike in some films I can mention], and writer/director Justin Dec in his feature film debut is clearly trying to do the best with his own material. His story is certainly flawed – I haven’t yet mentioned the awkward way he gets his lead couple to sleep together, or the way in which the demon is defeated which I won’t go into as it will reveal too much but which feels hastily thought up. And yet again we have a cheap, idiotic concluding scene which isn’t at all neither as amusing nor as scary as the writer/director/studio thinks it is. But he directs with a nice steady hand, making the most of some of his surroundings like a run-down, dirty shut-off wing of the hospital. Of course he relies a lot of jump scares, which for me and I’m sure many other genre fans is both a good element and a bad element of much modern horror. When they work, they work like dynamite, but there’s far too much reliance on them, and it’s become really lazy. Horror can be so much more than this. But at least Dec provides two or three good ones where even I was jolted a bit and, while he certainly makes sure that his film moves very fast, it does feel, for the most part, like it consists of actual scenes unlike, say, Happy Death Day 2 and Wish Upon which often felt like they were just showing us portions of scenes just so that young people won’t look at their phones while watching them, though I actually thought twice about looking at mine immediately afterwards, which tells me that it worked reasonably well overall.
While lacking [so far] in the distinctive stamp that the likes of Ari Aster and Robert Eggars brought to their debut features, I think that Dec has a good future in the genre. And Countdown is just about interesting enough to make the prospect of a sequel that could tell us more about what’s really going on [do demons have time to make apps?] not that bad a prospect – and despite getting from what I’ve heard are mostly weak reviews the film, in what is often a critic-proof genre, has made a lot of money – so it could happen. It should satisfy teenagers on a date or for a bit of scary fun, but, despite the general critical reception, it shouldn’t be too painful for older horror fans either, warming up for Doctor Sleep.