‘Countdown’ is some top-tier horror garbage

Everyone who downloads the app makes a big deal out of exasperation at the mere thought of reading the terms and conditions, and while they’re used to identify the curse, we don’t get into them quite enough for my liking. Images courtesy STX Entertainment.

7/10 Countdown is a dirt-cheap jump movie that gives you everything it’s got from the word “go.” 

In Countdown, an app that reportedly tells users their exact moment of death goes viral. For some, it’s a simple joke, but for others like recently graduated nurse Quinn Harris (Elizabeth Lail) who are told they only have a few days to live, it prompts a quick change of plans. Harris cancels a trip with her family to visit her mother’s grave after learning she’ll be killed during the scheduled time, causing her to be haunted by the curse that powers the app. 

The first kill in the opening sequence is among the movie’s best and illustrates everything good about its premise and execution. Courtney (Anne Winters) is at a party having a grand old time, then some tacky random number generator app tells her she has three hours to live and completely ruins her night. Wracked with paranoia, overstuffed neighborhood trash bins become a foreboding figures of death and assassins lurk in every deep shadow. The sequence ends with a simple three-camera setup of her panicking in her bathroom as her timer runs out, with her body constantly framed by the doorway and window reflecting her having much less room than she appears to have.

As early scare sequences expand, they mostly keep things interesting. Creatures, mostly dead bodies, are introduced to deliver jump scares, and given a staccato, very J-horror movement style to keep the scene tense after the initial jump. Countdown participates at times with the light- and sound-drop “here comes a jump scare” moments, but also has scares that aren’t telegraphed, bringing things from 0 to 100 in an instant and signaling much more strongly that nowhere is safe. Characters can’t just steer clear of the dimly lit, clearly monster-infested stairwell, because the monster is coming to them. Strong themes about destiny establish themselves as the app’s predictive power is proven.

Countdown accomplishes more with a Party City grim reaper outfit and a pair of stilts than Conjuring and It movies do with the elaborate costume and makeup designs clearly put together by the kind of people who brag about doing makeup for the movies. The cut-rate monster design and stock Halloween laugh notification sound actually add to the realism by complementing how trashy this app would probably be in real life.

I mean look at this! Look how terrible the monster looks! It looks like they’ve gone for the most expensive costume in the Spirit Halloween shop down the street! I’m having fun, but this is a serious demonstration of how much more important framing and tension are to jump scares than elaborate creature design.

The movie mines tension and scares out of a plot that isn’t necessarily filled with opportunities. The second kill is Evan (Dillon Lane), Courtney’s boyfriend and Quinn’s patient, gracefully walking the audience directly to the lead character while opening with two full kill sequences that inform her story without starting it prematurely. Then, once she takes over, we have two dead passive protagonists as a frame of reference for our new active one, making everything she does to fight against her fate more impactful and putting us in a great position as viewers — we’ve seen what doesn’t work, so we feel the tension when she’s in the monster’s clutches, but we haven’t seen what does work, so we’re just as in the dark about her solution as she is. 

Around the midpoint, you can feel the movie start to squeeze much harder for more content, and instead of filling out its runtime by exploring its premise and central mystery further, it’s mostly jump scare content. Once the demon Ozhin is identified, he’s established as torturing victims with hallucinations, an overused excuse to have an overused variety of it’s-all-in-the-character’s-head scenes where blocking doesn’t matter and there’s no tension because it’s explicit that there are no consequences to the sequence – it’s a compound of tropes I’m quite weary of.

Several mundane plot devices repeat, to the point that they become themes in and of themselves. Four characters are visited by the rotting corpses of family members whose deaths they blame themselves for, and three characters are either killed or scheduled to be killed by drunk drivers. I know it’s just lazy writing, but it starts to rise to the level of additional thematic material in spite of itself. “Never cancel your plans” is a weird moral, but that’s clearly the message Countdown wants me to take away from it – every death is preceded by the cancelling of plans.

They also bring in sexual assault as a pretty extreme non sequitur. Quinn’s boss, Dr. Sullivan (Peter Facinelli), immediately upon her full-time hiring, corners her and tries to give her a Hot Weinstein. After this elaborate and kind of traumatic plot appendage spends most of the runtime making no sense at all, it turns into a lazy backdoor out of the film’s own themes – Quinn believes killing someone before their time will break the curse over everyone, so, knowing Dr. Weinstein is set to live for 60 more years, she tries to kill him in the movie’s climax. His rapeyness is a way to avoid examining the morality of this decision.

Rather than let it lie as a pulpy if purely mechanical plot aid, Countdown leans fully into this sultry new theme. There’s a full sequence set in the middle of the action where Sullivan calls an HR conference to pre-emptively blame Quinn for the incident and cover his tracks. As she tries to murder him, she literally tells him “your time is up,” the glorious and exquisitely rare double-pun on both the main premise and the #metoo movement.

As if to illustrate how poorly thought-out the movie really is, God itself is literally on the rapist’s side in this scenario.  

Elizabeth Lail is terrific. I do really hope this turns into the vehicle for her that it might be.

The B-plot doesn’t just weaken Countdown structurally and thematically, it deliberately upstages the movie, like a wedding guest wearing white. I walked in the door in the mood for something trashy and topical, but not only has a whole other premise crashed the party, this one is even trashier and even more topical than the one I was sold on. Then, after all this effort to handwave away its own best elements with a subplot that’s at least sewn into its conclusion, the movie takes an abrupt left turn toward a different finale for which the Weinstein apparatus isn’t necessary, meaning the whole thing lifts out just as easily as you’d want it to.

When you see a writer/director on this type of cheap slasher film, it’s usually someone who’s too in love with the premise, but Justin Dec has made something half-baked and a bit clueless here, the merit of which instead lies in its wonderful scares. As with Lail, hopefully his work gets noticed here and he gets signed on to better-written projects. 

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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