There isn’t too much genuine fright fare hitting theaters this Halloween season. That’s good news for Countdown, a new horror movie about an app that tells you the exact moment you’re going to croak, and bad news for anyone who buys a ticket to Countdown hoping to be scared. Really, the only terrifying thing about this dopey, hackneyed, PG-13 creepfest is what it says about the world. Are we all really so obsessed with the little computers we carry around in our pockets that Hollywood is now building entire plots, entire movies, around their applications? Hell, this isn’t even the first smartphone horror flick of the month, though it definitely might be the first feature-length warning about the dangers of skimming or ignoring user agreements.
Quinn Harris (Elizabeth Lail), the young nurse heroine of Countdown, certainly doesn’t read them. It’s on a whim that she downloads the mysterious Countdown app, skipping right past the terms and conditions to find out, down to the second, how much life she has left. While her coworkers at the hospital laugh off the ominous timer installed on their devices—maybe because it promises them a very distant death—Quinn is a little unnerved by her numerical prophecy, the mere three days it puts on her clock. Then again, even those looking at 70 more years or so might wish they hadn’t downloaded the cursed app, which can’t be deleted, takes up 60 GB of space (!), and emits an annoying shriek every few hours, its push notifications going off like one of those seasonal motion-sensor witch decorations people hang outside their homes every October. Truly spooky stuff.
Of course, knowing exactly when they’re going to die might lead a person to, you know, try to sidestep their impending doom. Horror movies have gotten some mileage out of self-fulfilling prophecies; one of the scariest moments in this year’s Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark hinged on a teenager sealing his own fate by trying to swerve around it. In Countdown, changing your plans to avoid a date with the Grim Reaper results in a “breach in user contract,” summoning a demonic force determined to make good on the prediction. It’s a real “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation: Blow off the surgery you’re scheduled to die during and some specter will just toss your ass down a flight of stairs instead. What’s unclear is whether the app actually abbreviates lifespans. If it does, why does it screw over some users and not others? If it doesn’t, then what does it matter if you even download it, right?
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Perhaps these are not questions conducive to enjoying a movie as convoluted and conceptually moronic as Countdown. It’s the kind of half-baked pastiche of a thriller that gives one a deeper appreciation for the films it’s shamelessly ripping off. The premise recalls Final Destination, except that the fun in that series was in how, exactly, death was going to fill its quota; here, instead of some unexpected, hilariously elaborate Rube Goldberg device of destruction, we get… a generic CGI ghoul, using its poltergeist powers to toss the marked around like rag dolls. There’s a touch of The Ring, too, in the film’s ticking-clock scenario, and Countdown inherits the arguable flaw of that suspense device, which is that knowing exactly when a character is going to die sort of neutralizes any potential danger en route to the moment of truth. But the Ring movies at least approach the build up stylishly, playing creepy games of escalation and intimidation. Here, director Justin Dec, who also wrote the screenplay, stages the jump scares with a perfunctory, workmanlike indifference. You’ll shrug off every jolt.
Even at just 90 minutes, Countdown limps over the finish line. To fill out its skimpy running time, the film piles on a bunch of inessential subplots: a quasi-romance with another of the app’s victims (Jordan Calloway); some familial tension involving Quinn’s little sister (Talitha Eliana Bateman) and their recently deceased mother; and most incongruously, a whole storyline about Quinn dealing with sexual harassment on the job. There’s also some labored if modestly amusing comic relief in the form of a sarcastic phone-store clerk (Tom Segura) and a priest (P.J. Byrne) who seems to have embraced the holy life out of a fanboyish obsession with demon mythology. The whole thing plays like a logline unconvincingly stretched and twisted into an actual movie, as though someone procrastinated on planning for their meeting with a producer and then bullshitted a whole pitch in the 15 minutes beforehand. Forget cheating death. In Countdown, it’s the audience that really gets cheated.