Playing like a harmless mash-up of Drag Me To Hell and Happy Death Day (with a little Scream thrown in for fun), writer-director Justin Dec’s feature debut Countdown is a fun, horror-lite movie that succeeds despite relying too much on tired genre tropes and jump scares. And though it takes its time in finding its way, once it gets there, the film does just enough to get your pulse elevated and earn a contented nod. Possibly a fist pump.
The premise is the latest in the growing line of “why did it take so long for this to become a movie?” tween-friendly flicks. Less than a year after one super-trendy concept became the moderately successful Escape Room, Countdown keeps it going, aimed squarely at providing moderate scares for the adolescent crowd. This go-round, it’s your phone that can kill you—specifically an app (and, yes, it’s a real thing) that uses what can only be a highly-advanced, super-scientific set of algorithms and formulas to determine how much longer you will be alive, down to the second.
The film begins with a group of high school kids who all install the app on their phone as a lark, and it’s indeed all fun and games until Courtney (Anne Winters) discovers that she will be dying in a scant three hours. Sure enough (spoiler, but not a spoiler), the app is right, and, after being whacked by an unseen supernatural baddie, she takes her last breath as the countdown expires.
The next day at the local hospital, nurse Quinn Harris (an excellent Elizabeth Lail) is chatting with her colleagues about the very same app, and sure enough, they get sucked in, too. Initially, Quinn laughs off the idea that she has only three days to live, but when Courtney’s boyfriend (who drunk-drove himself into a tree the same night his girlfriend was killed) dies exactly when the app said he would, too, she gets a little freaked out. A trip to the local smartphone repair shop proves fruitless, but at least Quinn runs into Matt (Jordan Calloway), who’s in the same boat, and the two pair up to try to break the curse.
There’s no doubt that Dec can be commended for his capable work on the directorial side, as he proves that (with the help of editor Brad Wilhite and The Nun cinematographer Maxime Alexandre) he can put together an appropriately scary movie—the highlights of which are easily the tenser, more deliberate moments (as opposed to the copious jump scares).
It’s the cliche-reliant script, though, that scuttles any hope Countdown has of becoming a game-changer or, at the very least, a clever, inventive departure from every second-rate horror film ever. (Will there ever come a time when a character refuses to simply stand and stare at a super-creepy thing that would send everyone else in the world running lightspeed in the opposite direction?)
It would have been the easiest thing in the world to say that Countdown is so bad that you’ll find yourself counting down the seconds until it’s over, but it’s actually a fairly solid effort that provides more than a couple good frights. Whether we’ll live to see the perfectly set-up sequel remains to be seen, of course, but if not, at least it won’t be because an app killed us first.