Countdown (2019)

OCTOBER 31, 2019


Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday, producers will stop funding horror movies that are based around modern technology of any sort. Anything that revolves around cell phones or video games tends to be lame at best, and they also usually date themselves pretty quickly as they center on tech that is constantly updating. Luckily for Countdown, the concept of an "app" will probably give it a longer shelf life than some others (those Chat Roulette inspired ones will have to be explained to new viewers, I think), but it still falls back on the same tricks as so many of those others, and ends up falling flat in nearly every aspect when it comes to its horror thriller narrative.

The concept itself is fine: a new app tells you when you'll die, and it's disturbingly accurate, giving our hero a real reason to panic when she downloads it and gets told she has less than three days to live. So it's in the same vein as The Ring's "Seven days!" kind of plotting, and the movie offers a handful of supporting character deaths along the way to give it a bit of a pulse, but it unfortunately relies on a James Wan type demon for its scary business, when it would have been more fun to rip off Final Destination and offer Rube Goldberg-ian death traps to get the people offed on time. For example, the first one we see is a girl who is alone in her bathroom when her time is up - at which point some invisible force pulls her up to the ceiling and drops her down on the side of the tub, smashing her skull. Not a bad death on its own, but it's devoid of any drama/thrills when we know exactly when it'll happen and it just... does? Without fanfare or even any setup?

So basically we wait the entire movie to see how our hero Quinn (Elizabeth Lail) gets around it, and it's never particularly engaging either. At least with a slasher movie (even a generic/bad one) there's some element of basic suspense: will they get away from the killer, even momentarily, or is there a second killer out there, etc. But here, it's like the screenwriters wanted to go out of their way to remind you that nothing much exciting was going to happen. Halfway through Quinn and her love interest (due to die a few hours before her) meet up with a priest who is obsessed with demons and the like, and he informs us that if someone were to prove the app wrong (i.e. die *before* their time) everyone would be freed of their death-counter, but don't bother to have any fun with this scenario and let people live recklessly knowing that they can't die as a result. And by giving everyone we care about more or less the same amount of time left to live, there's never any sense of rising pressure - everyone's due to die near the end of our 90 minutes, no sooner, so we wait.

The demon is also pretty goofy looking, and doesn't appear enough to register as an actual villain, so it fails there, too. To pick up some of his slack, we get a human antagonist in the form of Peter Facinelli, a doctor at the hospital where Quinn works as a newly instated registered nurse. It takes all of three or four seconds of his screentime to recognize that he has eyes on Quinn, and sure enough before long he's offering her a #MeToo on a silver platter, cornering her and reminding her that he gave her a recommendation and thus she "owes" him. A timely plot point to be sure, but they even botch this by (spoilers ahead!) having Quinn try to murder him, because his countdown gives him another 50 years to live so if he dies now the app would be proven wrong, and the demon is nothing but a stickler for his own dumb rules I guess.

Now, I have no love whatsoever for guys like Facinelli's character, but does groping her and lying about it (before she can complain he tells HR she's obsessed with him) warrant killing the guy? I can appreciate the basic idea of killing an asshole to save yourself, but I mean, half the movie takes place in a hospital - surely there's some drunk driver who survived a crash that killed a child that might be a better candidate for being murdered? Or hell, maybe explain the situation to him and have him kill himself to make amends? No, they go with the "let's have our hero spend most of the finale trying to murder a man who has no direct bearing on her situation" route. Stupider (spoilers again) still, he just disappears at one point, as the demon basically intervenes to keep her from killing him and winning, so she tries plan B while he is just never seen again. OK, movie. Then again, this spares her from trying to explain why she just killed a man when the hospital HR people already think she's got problems, so that's a win for her.

Interestingly, while it fails miserably as a horror film, it's actually kind of entertaining as a comedy - and I don't mean in the unintentional "bad horror movie" way, either. There are two supporting characters - the aforementioned priest, played by PJ Byrne (an actual Final Destination vet) and a cell phone dealer/repairman played by Tom Segura - who are legitimately hilarious in their combined 15 minutes of the film. When we meet Byrne he's just sitting in the rectory snacking on communion wafers like they're chips, and Segura only agrees to help our heroes because they give him a credit card he can use to impress his Tinder date, a running gag that continues into the credits. I don't know if the actors were just trying to bring life to their material by improvising, or if the writers perhaps realized that it'd be in their best interest to include genuine humor in the proceedings to offset the unintentional laughter their "scare" scenes would receive, but either way these two guys (plus a handful of other moments, including a good bit with a racist conspiracy theorist they're happy to risk getting killed by convincing him to install the app so they can look at the terms of service.

And yeah, that might be the funniest part of the whole movie: part of it revolves around the fact that no one reads the user agreements. Not only does the demon stick by his rules, he also doesn't hide his intentions, laying things out in the endless TOS that everyone just scrolls past and accepts (hell, even when they get the guy to install so they can read them, they still "blah blah blah" part of it). Between that and the humor I almost got the sense that this was a satirical thriller about our obsession with apps that got rewritten into a pretty dumb supernatural horror movie in the Rings/Chain Letter vein, which would explain why the horror element was so half-assed (and why it randomly dipped into Flatliners-esque territory in the final 20 minutes, with our heroes seeing the demon in the form of loved ones whose deaths they blame themselves for). Or maybe the whole thing was just cobbled together quickly to get it into theaters to have something "scary" out for Halloween. Either or.

What say you?


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