Horror film makers must be thanking their lucky stars for technology. It’s a natural for scary movies, playing on our fears of the unknown – just think Truth Or Dare (2018), Unfriended (2014) and its Dark Web sequel. The list goes on, embracing thrillers such as Searching (2018), but until recently they were laptop-centric. Now it’s the turn of the smaller screen – the mobile phone.
More specifically, it’s the turn of an app in Countdown , one that tells you when you’re going to die – if you want to know, that is. But, as one of the characters points out, Countdown is just an app, so totally harmless, right? And, for most of the people who download it, yes, it is, because they discover they’re going to live into their nineties or beyond. But there’s a select few who are told they’ve got just a couple of days left or even less. One of them is nurse Quinn (Elizabeth Lail), who’s already seen a patient of hers die, seemingly because of the same app, and now she’s in the same boat – and has a side plot of a predatory doctor to deal with too. She meets Matt (Jordan Calloway), whose can’t delete the same app and then her little sister Jordan (Talitha Bateman) downloads it and has even less time left. All they have to do is put a stop to the app and whoever – or whatever – is behind it. Simples.
First things first. Don’t go into Countdown expecting to be scared. You won’t be. It may be billed as a horror, but frightening the bejesus out of you isn’t what writer/director Justin Dec has in mind. Admittedly, he’s littered the film with moments that, in the hands of real scaremongers, would turn your knuckles the colour of driven snow. But no, he’s chosen to have fun instead, to make something of a guilty pleasure. He takes every single horror trope he can think of and throws it all into the pot, which makes for some unpleasant deaths but also makes for a lot of laughs – even at times when you really shouldn’t be laughing at all. Because, even though this is a film that steadfastly refuses to take itself seriously and knows exactly what it is, there are times when it genuinely tries to be scary and simply doesn’t cut it.
The best laughs come from droll phone store manager Derek (Tom Segura) who even pops up in a mid-credits scene at the end. Yep, another trope, albeit a non-horror one. And then there’s that favourite horror convention, a man of the cloth, in this case Father John (P J Byrne), a wacky, demon-obsessed priest who we first meet waiting for his fast food delivery – and munching on a Pringles-like stack of communion wafers to curb his appetite. They’re both scene stealers, giving the film a much-needed lift when it starts to sag, to the point that you miss them when they’re not on screen.
But when Countdown should be scary, particularly as it builds towards its climax, it falls down on the job, looking cheap and sounding silly. Those nerves remain unjangled. Kudos to the film for knowing that it’s not good and deciding to send itself up something rotten, but it loses points – and our interest – in those final scenes and even its likeable self-awareness cannot save it from the silliness at its core. That, dare we say it, is the Countdown Conundrum.
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Horror, Thriller | Cert: 15 | STX International | UK, 25 October 2019 | Dir. Justin Dec | Elizabeth Lail, Jordan Calloway, Talitha Bateman, Tom Segura, P J Byrne, Peter Facinelli.