It's a film about an app that tells you when you're going to die. By rights, it should be awful. And yet...by Caspar Salmon / October 28, 2019 / Leave a comment
Transparently emanating from a desperate late-night brainstorm sesh, Countdown tells the story of some young people who download an app that, like, tells you when you’re going to die? The briskness with which the film goes about the process of setting up that ludicrous premise is stunning: the opening scene takes place at a party where a bunch of youths come across the application, quickly work out what it means, and are spooked out when it tells one of them that she will die that evening. All of this happens within the first minute, pretty much, because delusions of grandeur are not foremost among Countdown’s faults. The film is adorably aware of its reduced means and ambitions and gets the job done in a sweet 90 minutes.
A cheap and cheerful comedy-horror is the order of the day, then, for this movie that works in the vein of Scream and the Final Destination films, but with a smaller budget and a wobbly tilt towards the supernatural. Elizabeth Lail—best known as Guinevere ‘Beck’ Beck from the Netflix series You—gamely plays Quinn Harris, a young nurse who notices that a patient of hers owns the Countdown application. When he meets a sticky end, she soon realises that the app actually delivers death to certain unfortunates who download it, and, in a twist that nobody could have foreseen, is disturbed to see that she herself has barely two days left to live.
Quinn teams up with Matt (Jordan Calloway), a young man who has also been given a brief remaining lifespan, to try and work out how to defeat the app’s still very indeterminate curse. Hijinks, jump scares and a great deal of silliness ensue, culminating in a ropey confrontation at the hospital, where Quinn realises she must fight to save her younger sister.
At its worst, Countdown is completely stupid, while at its best it is endearingly silly. In the latter mode, the film manages to wring some laughs from its goofy set-up, and also has some genuinely effective scares up its sleeve. Director Justin Dec is efficient at the business of making his audience jump, building up atmosphere convincingly and then mixing up his effects and camera angles so as to keep the scares fresh and hard to second-guess. At the same time, the film is enjoyably upbeat, even veering into ‘romp’ territory on occasion. A blaspheming priest and an acerbic phone shop owner steal scenes from under the leads’ noses as they get involved in helping Quinn and Matt out, and the script goes in for shameless mugging at times.
If you don’t thrill to the line, “Your time’s up you rapey fuck!,” uttered by Quinn as she lashes out at an antagonist with a length of metal piping, then this film is decidedly not for you. If, on the other hand, you go in two Sauvignon Blancs to the good, scare easy, and are willing to overlook conspicuous, glaring plot holes, Countdown should work out quite nicely for you.
The central problems of how the app actually works, and how and why it picks its victims, and how to defeat its stranglehold, are answered unconvincingly. A detour into the supernatural, where the priest invites the protagonists into a chalk circle designed to ward off satanic forces is tedious—and, inevitably, when the app’s evil spirits take a physical form in the last act, the results are infinitely less frightening than the invisible threat of the unknown. In this final action sequence, the basement of the hospital is inexplicably set-dressed so as to resemble a haunted Young British Artists exhibition. One character simply disappears from the action half-way through. In the central roles, Lail and Calloway are capable if not exactly transcendent, and there’s a lot of boring family trauma business to get through, particularly after it emerges that the app targets people with difficult pasts. Resolving these plot points is a drag, as much for the spectator as for, seemingly, the director, who seems much more invested in the appearance and disappearance of grim reapers in rearview mirrors. The story of the film, then, can sap its energy.
And yet—and yet—something in Countdown works. At a time of slick, humourless franchises, it can be a blast to watch a fun little original movie simply have a damn go. For most of its runtime, Countdown is pretty unconcerned with effects, but instead uses its old-school tools of suspense and editing just deftly enough to get the juices flowing. So long as no sequel ever comes along to stretch its already paper-thin storyline any further, and nobody ever pays more than £10 for a ticket, this nonsensical little film will remain a perfectly amiable little upstart.