Saturday, November 2, 2019

Countdown (2019)

Director: Justin Dec
Notable cast: Elizabeth Lail, Jordan Calloway, Talitha Eliana Bateman, PJ Byrne

Horror is an interesting genre to be a specific fan of. It tends to have the least studio oversight owing to lower overall budgets. This has been used to phenomenal effect over the years telling bigger, more insightful stories than you’d assume its plot allows. Hereditary and it’s exploration of family dynamics and legacy, Babadook and it’s exploration of mental health, The Shining and whatever interpretation is popular at the time. On the other hand, this can go the other way as well. With low budgets and low expectations come the people who see horror as low hanging fruit. A quick buck to be made, since they only have to be interesting enough to get comparatively few butts in seats to be profitable, and even if they’re not, they can license the movie out to several streaming services. The bottom line is they will make money, by and large, so they can be low effort.

I’m not trying to brush this lower effort class of film with a broad, universally terrible brush, because that wouldn’t be strictly fair. There are flashes of real ideas in these sometimes. I’m not saying Countdown is one of these better than it should be movies, quite the opposite actually, but I am trying to highlight that I believe there was potential, and perhaps potential in the future, because the idea here is actually pretty cool. In theory.

We open at a safe PG-13 party, where people are sitting around drinking and decide to download an app that tells you when you’ll die. One girl gets a particularly short clock. This causes her to not get in the car with her drunk boyfriend, who then crashes into a tree. It’s reasonably clear she would’ve died in the passenger seat had she been in the car, but that doesn’t matter, as the app tells her she broke the user license agreement (you gotta read those every time…) and she mysteriously dies when she was supposed to anyway. It’s here we meet our main character Quinn (Once Upon A Time’s Elizabeth Lail), on her first day as a licensed nurse, treating the drunk driving boyfriend from earlier who is now panicked, as he downloaded the app and his timer zeros out during his coming surgery. He, too, avoids the surgery where he gets a warning for breaking the EULA and is found at the bottom of a stairwell very dead at his prescribed time. So Quinn, who has downloaded the app herself and gotten a deadline of days, believes in the phenomena enough to try and break her own curse. In the meantime, random spooky things happen, as people who used the app are haunted by a tall cloaked figure that can only be seen in mirrors. Working out the specifics of the curse requires a new friend who is running out of time himself, an old priest, a young priest (PJ Byrne, as the film’s saving grace, a demonology obsessed priest who thinks the whole situation is “cool”), and a tech guru who owns a small phone repair shop in a strip mall.

I’ll spare you my spoiling the literal specifics here, but basically, it is a demon app and the film is mostly focused on breaking an ancient curse that’s using modern technology to express itself because reasons. Not reasons that are given, but reasons, presumably, anyway. And herein lies the film's primary and most significant issue. It’s a hook and nothing else. The idea of what’s ostensibly a Buzzfeed quiz killing you is actually a pretty great one and even the way it plays out like a small scale Final Destination film in each scene is actually a fun idea as well (though, full disclosure, I’m a sucker for the Final Destination franchise). As a matter of fact, I’d wager Countdown would be much more entertaining if it had ripped more off of the Final Destination movies because the kills in Countdown are largely in the “dropped from three to fifteen feet in the air on their head” mold, which is fun enough the first time. I guess.

But even with no other change, having elaborate, violent ‘Rube Goldberg machine’ like death scenes would’ve raised my score by several points. There is the PG-13 horror film’s reliance on jump scares as well, always disappointing, but especially so in this case where other kinds of scares and tension are almost in-built. I’d go so far as to say that given the plot’s potential set up for both gut-wrenching, nearly claustrophobic anxiety with the time limit combined with the endless potential for body horror in a well-made kill scene (especially one with an  invisible force as a killer) this movie’s mediocrity in both of these ways is really disappointing, instead spending all of its time doing the thing where a ghastly apparition is doing impossible ghost things in front of a character, disappearing only to reappear, wait for it, behind the character with a musical spike. It’s lazy, it’s boring, and it’s disappointing. Or would be if you couldn’t smell the “below average” coming off of this movie from a mile off. I suppose it’s more accurate to say it’s just lazy and boring.

This one is a definite wait until it hits VOD if you bother at all. Maybe you can have a mediocre PG-13 demon/ghost movie marathon with this, The Possession, The Unborn and countless others and salvage some fun out of it. Maybe.

Written By Sean Caylor

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