2019 | rated PG-13 | starring Elizabeth Lail | written & directed by Justin Dec | 1 hr 30 mins |
Since the invention of the smart phone and the proliferation of the internet, horror movies have been trying to find a way to make our digital world scary. With very rare exception, these attempts have been disasters, from the repulsive FearDotCom to Pulse to One Missed Call to Unfriended to Antisocial the movie Countdown directly takes from, the indie killer app film Bedeviled. Yes, Countdown is the latest PG-13 killer app movie with a few odd twists that don’t affect the movie one iota. It’s not from Blumhouse, instead it’s a writer/director work from first-time-filmmaker Justin Dec which might suggest it has some inspiration that conjure this movie into existance. It doesn’t – playing out exactly like these movies always play out with a heavy dose of Final Destination slapped between the cracks to hold it together.
Countdown is a game show about numbers and letters. Countdown, this movie, is about a bunch of people who start downloading a mysterious app called “Countdown” that tells you when you’re going to die. Most people live to 95 and blow it off as a gag, but some get 3 days and end up dead on the spot. A nurse (Elizabeth Lail) downloads the app and spends the next 2 days getting the help of tech gurus and priests to avoid her fate.
The only reason for anyone to see Countdown is to support that the world needs more Elizabeth Lail in it. Lail, who won hearts as social media exhibitionist and Cool Girl Guinevere Beck in You, now gets her chance to go through the weird Hollywood fraternity hazing ritual of casting new It Girls in bargain basement, run-of-the-mill slasher movies. “Do this, and I’ll make you a star” some cigar-chomping Hollywood pervert says (I assume). Occasionally, the It Girl takes to this like Jessica Rothe’s terrific turns in Happy Death Day or Lucy Hale in handful of these movies and I’m an open advocate for Alycia Debnam-Carey in the fun Friend Request. How does Lail take to the scream queen role? Eh, fine I guess. This is how men watch movies though. If there is an actress we like in it, we will watch complete garbage from start to finish. Lail does what we want: she’s in it. She walks around, talks, sits, stands. She also fights demons and tries to kill harassing doctor Peter Facinelli.
Worse than anything though is that Countdown offers nothing new to this stuffed subgenre. These movies always seek to find an origin to the supernatural app and that origin is either a) vengeful spirit whose tragic death we need to research and make right or b) trickster demon who we have to get a priest involved to deal with. Countdown does make sense ultimately. It ties the rules of it’s app to the rules of a supernatural force well and ends up with a schlocky action final that might have worked in a better film. The problem is that it spends so much time trying to make sense that it isn’t fun. It’s “there’s something behind the shower curtain” set pieces are fright free to the point that it barely qualifies as a horror movie.
Is there anyway to make Tech Horror work? Maybe the tech company itself or app developers themselves are haunted. Maybe the wi-fi is passing through the dead like in The Twilight Zone episode Night Call. Maybe there is no cause or solution at all and the world just spread around a technology without knowing the consequences and cursed ourselves. There is also a better idea in this movie. Dec doesn’t play with the idea of what someone would do if they knew when they were going to die. Let’s say the countdown wasn’t 3 days, but a week or a year or 6 months. It would be interesting to follow how people reacted with that knowledge. There is your movie.
Ultimately, I think the problem with digital horror is a problem with relatability. I see my door every day so I can imagine the fear of someone breaking it down. I understand how a VCR works so I get Videodrome and The Ring. But how many people know how the internet, their smartphone or their apps work? How do you mine the mysterious out of digital technology that is itself kind of hard to visualize or realize in a visual medium? The Ring, for example, took something tangible and made it mysterious. These movies are trying to make the mysterious into a tangible thing that can kill you. It isn’t working.
Yes, Countdown is complete junk. In Polaroid I delighted in how it’s 3rd act delivered a set piece where our heroine actually physically fights a ghost. Countdown is so dumb and on-the-nose it makes me regret that. But we all need to just suck it up, do our part and watch it so that Elizabeth Lail can be in more movies.