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Non-Review Review: Countdown

Countdown is a spectacular mess of a film, but also a surprisingly fun one.

Superficially, Countdown belongs to the modern school of low-budget high-concept horrors. It is build around an admittedly rather goofy premise, devotes considerable time to exploring and articulating its own internal logic, and is just flippant enough that it never entirely collapses under its weight. In terms of basic structures, Countdown is of a piece with films like Happy Death Day or Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. It is preoccupied with the protagonists’ desire to figure out the rules of the macabre trap in which they have found themselves.

A killer app.

However, Countdown is so committed to that template that something interesting happens. Countdown never quite settles on a particular mode or genre, instead relying on the propulsive momentum of that central quest to hold the film together. So Countdown transitions wildly between various styles of horror films. It features a monster who looks like it just missed out on lead roles in The Curse of La Llorona or The Nun, leans into the fear of technology and identity that defined Cam or Unfriended, and even takes a late turn into the sort of gender-war tinged serial killer mayhem of a Halloween sequel.

None of these elements cohere. At all. However, there’s an infectious sense of fun to Countdown. It rarely feels like Countdown is motivated by anything more than the urge to get to the next scene or the next scare, which results in a very haphazard and uneven film, but also a delightfully surreal cocktail. Countdown might be pretty far from a good horror movie, but it’s an endearingly engaging one.

Nursing some legitimate fears.

The basic premise of Countdown is vaguely interesting. The film focuses on a new app that allegedly informs the user of the time and date of their death, down to the second. When a bunch of teenagers download the app at the party, one discovers that she only has hours to live. When she discovers that her drunk boyfriend is planning on driving her home, this teenager decides to change her fate. This does not go well, apparently opening the door to some more primal and more unsettling force.

There are a number of interesting ideas at play here. The most obvious is predestination and the idea of fate. Indeed, the opening scenes of Countdown feel like something of a spiritual companion piece to the Final Destination. After being warned of her fate, the young student tried to change it. On her walk home, she keeps seeing a cloaked figure out of the corner of her eye. The opening half of Countdown plays with the possibility that the Grim Reaper does not care to be cheated, and so enacts a terrible vengeance on those who use the app to try to avoid their fate.

Of course, this opens up all sorts of interesting questions about fate and morality. After all, at the core of every horror movie is the idea of transgression and punishment. A character breaks a rule, and is punished for that. In Countdown, characters’ efforts to change their fates are presented as a transgression. “User agreement violated,” the application ominously warns as the situation rapidly escalates. However, what if the app pushed somebody towards their death? Can cause and effect be so neatly delineated?

To consider the opening sequence; the boyfriend at the start of the film only got drunk because his girlfriend downloaded the app. She lost a bet about who would have the shortest lifespan, and so had to finish everybody’s drinks. Her boyfriend stepped into the fray. If he had not consumed all that alcohol, would the journey home have been safer and would his girlfriend’s life have been longer? The film never answers. Similarly, there is a question of unintended consequences. If a person tries to change their fate – by cancelling a car journey – does that count as altering the fate of everyone involved in that crash?

In it to Quinn it.

Countdown is largely uninterested in these questions. Indeed, Countdown displays a surprisingly lack of imagination. Final Destination presented the spited Grim Reaper as a sort of malevolent Rube Goldberg, indulging in a variety of malicious and sadistic murders. There was a palpable sense that a price had to be paid for the protagonists’ hubris in altering his plans. In contrast, Countdown offers a much more literal-minded supernatural antagonist. Those who cheat death are just likely to find themselves thrown from a great height and to have their skull cracked open. It’s decidedly uninspired.

Countdown also eschews the sort of structure that one might expect from a film like this. Countdown opens with a bunch of teenagers idly downloading the application at a party, setting up the standard horror template by which a bunch of characters will find themselves picked off one-by-one. This is an obvious horror movie formula, but an effective one; it ensures a regular stream of horrific set pieces. There is something appealing in that structure, which has informed films as diverse as Scream, Cabin in the Woods, Final Destination and Escape Room.

Instead, Countdown sharply pivots into a completely different style of horror. The protagonist is revealed to be Quinn Harris, a young woman enjoying her first day as a qualified nurse. Naturally, she downloads the app and discovers that she has less than two days to live. She tries to change her fate, making her the target of an ominous demonic force, and tries to figure out what exactly has happened and how to avoid it. After this switch, it is also kind of clear what Countdown is doing. It is consciously emulating more recent self-aware horrors.

Countdown wears its influences on its sleeve, dutifully setting up the ominous closed-off wing of the hospital that will provide an effective climactic set piece. Just in case Happy Death Day wasn’t enough of an influence, it also casts Peter Facinelli as a predatory doctor who would never let his marriage get in the way of acting like a “rapey f&%k” around his attractive young charge. The emphasis here is on self-awareness, in watching Quinn try to figure out the rules of the horror movie and how best to manipulate them to her advantage.

Putting the matter to bed.

Although this sort of rules-based horror film has had a surge in popularity recently, it is a risky proposition. After all, building a horror film around a single protagonist drastically de-escalates the stakes; the audience knows that the central character is definitely safe until the final ten minutes or so. It takes a very clever film to write around this. Even Happy Death Day built its central premise in such a way as to mitigate this problem. Tree is the protagonist of Happy Death Day, but the film is structured in such a way that she can be the focal point of a set piece every ten minutes or so to maintain tension.

Countdown is nowhere near that clever. There is perhaps something interesting in the idea of how closely a person’s life is tied to their mobile phone, and the movie has at least one clever idea in burying a demonic pact inside the “terms and conditions” that nobody ever reads when downloading on of these devices. A mobile application’s user agreement is actually a clever hook for a modern rules-based horror, but Countdown is not interested in getting bogged down with the mechanics of how these sorts of social contracts work.

So Countdown makes another weird and sharp pivot. Understanding that its protagonist cannot die until the final act, and knowing that it has provided a literal in-movie countdown, the film attempts to figure out a reliable way to deliver jump scares. So it naturally reveals that the application is not the work of a force as mundane as the Grim Reaper, but instead a malicious demon that likes to toy with its food. In doing so, Countdown pivots sharply into another genre, feeling very much of a piece with more blockbuster horrors like Insidious or Annabelle Comes Home.

Again, this doesn’t quite work, in large part because the shift feels rather sudden and because the film never manages to convince the audience that the characters are in any real danger. The same thing happens towards the climax of the movie, when it takes a sharp and surreal turn into a much more conventional slasher movie that also just happens to feature a monstrous demon that has made a deal with death to collect on renegade souls. None of these elements are particularly engaging on their own, often executed in a rather clumsy manner, but they add up to something hard to quantify.

Time to crowbar in another reference.

Countdown eases the transition around these sharp corners with some strong work from the supporting cast, relegating the obligatory exposition to two separate characters in order to demonstrate just how fractured the film’s approach to genre has become. Tom Segura is charming as software technician Derek, who is all the more charming for how he seems to wander into and out of the narrative without ever even attracting the attention of anything sinister. P.J. Byrne has a great deal of fun as “Cool Priest”, Father John. Father John is very excited about the prospect of demonic intervention. “I’ve read about it. A lot.”

These elements help to keep the film’s tongue planted firmly in its cheek. Of course, there is a downside to this approach, in that Countdown never really feels like it has any stakes and never settles into any individual genre long enough to find its groove. However, this lightness of touch is also surprisingly charming. Countdown is the kind of movie that transitions from a botched ritual in a church basement to a heroic murder plot against a sexual predator in the space of about five minutes, without pausing long enough to consider anything that is actually happening.

Countdown is wildly uneven, completely chaotic, and never manages to do anything that it is attempting particularly well. However, it tries to do so many different things that those choices compound to create something that is strangely compelling in spite of all of those. Countdown is far from wonderful, but it is enchantingly weird.

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