2019, PG-13, 88 min. Directed by Justin Dec. Starring Elizabeth Lail, Anne Winters, Peter Facinelli, Talitha Eliana Bateman, Tom Segura, P.J. Byrne.
REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., Nov. 1, 2019
For those who survived the desert of Hollywood horror in the 1990s and 2000s, there’s a certain stigma associated with PG-13 horror films that is hard to shake. It is not the case that most PG-13 horror films are bad; it is the case, however, that most were intended for a different audience than existing genre fans. So don’t be surprised if a movie like Countdown seems to miss the mark in the eyes of die-hard horror fans. That’s kinda the whole point.
Quinn’s (Lail) life is going pretty much according to plan. After wrapping up her internship at a local hospital, she is excited to begin her life as a registered nurse, even if it means dealing with the unwanted advances of the chief of medicine (Facinelli). But when she meets a patient who claims to have an app that is counting down to the exact time of his death, Quinn lets curiosity get the better of her and downloads it to her phone. Soon she’s being stalked by Ozhin, a demon determined to collect the souls of anyone who breaks the deadly terms and conditions of the Countdown app.
If you're a hardened horror connoisseur, odds are Countdown is not for you. This is not a movie for audiences who can rank the best kills in the Final Destination franchise; this is the gateway drug for teenagers who, if the rest of us horror fans are lucky, may expand their appreciation of the genre into those films and beyond. Countdown disassembles a certain type of terror trope then rebuilds it for a new generation of teenagers, and the results are often good enough to get by. The characters are just likable enough, their decision-making just strong enough, and the onscreen deaths just creative enough to ensure that the whole thing sticks together. That doesn’t change the fact that target audiences will declare Countdown one of the scariest movies of the year without seeing any other scary movies.
Surprisingly, Countdown works best when it operates less as a Nineties horror homage and more as a modern horror-comedy. Late in the film, we are introduced to Father John (Byrne), a stoner Catholic priest passionately obsessed with demonology. In his first moments onscreen, Father John munches down on unconsecrated Eucharist wafers and complains loudly about his missing Favor driver. Right when we’ve decided that Countdown has no surprises up its sleeve, Dec spins a familiar archetype of the genre – the knowledgeable religious figure – into something unexpected. John quickly becomes one of the film’s biggest highlights (and the most necessary element for any return sequels).
Yet while if there are a few pieces that land with a thud – including an awkward #MeToo narrative and a reoccurring flashback to childhood trauma – there’s an underlying sincerity here that separates Countdown from the pack. There are plenty of horror films out there that combine middling scares with multiplex aspirations; for better or worse, Countdown is made for a mainstream crowd but crafted with a little bit more love than you often see at this budget.
As for the biggest missed opportunity? There’s a moment when a character is bullied into downloading the title app on their phone, and for a few brief seconds, we see Countdown’s user rating on the screen. Somehow, this devil app seems to have received a 3.6 out of 5.0 from its collective user base. For as much effort as Countdown puts into having a half-believable Christian mythology, I would gladly trade it all for the opportunity to spend 90 minutes scrolling through the app’s in-movie reviews.