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Horror may be the one area of film that has suffered the most thanks to advancements in technology. While many characters in the genre suffer from some degree of script-induced idiocy regardless, the problem of "Why doesn't [character] just do [smart thing]" becomes a more significant question when everybody has an instant communication and knowledge device in their pocket.
The solution for many modern horror movies is to simply make the technology itself the source of the horror. We've seen several of these movies (usually low budget, horror's sweet spot) over the last few years that have used the internet, social media, and cell phones as keys to whatever it is that is killing off the characters. The newest of these is Justin Dec's Countdown.
In the film, Countdown is an app that is built to tell the user when they are going to die. It’s little more than a clock that ticks down. When most people turn it on, it promises them decades of life — but what if you were to turn it on and discover you had mere days or hours to live?
This is what happens to Quinn (Elizabeth Lail), a nurse who is informed about the app by a patient who swears he’s going to die. His girlfriend downloaded the app and died hours later just as the app predicted. She avoided getting in a car with him for fear that his drunk driving would be the cause of her death. And while it would have been, as a tree branch pierced the seat she would have been sitting in, she died anyway, just under more mysterious circumstances.
When Quinn opens the app she finds that she has less than three days to live, and so, after the kid in the hospital dies right on schedule, she does everything she can to avoid her own death, even if that violates the Countdown's Terms of Service.
It’s a decent enough setup for a horror movie. While we usually expect most of horror movie characters to die, here they all know exactly when the monster is going to come for them. It's an interesting idea, but ultimately it's also Countdown's fatal flaw.
You see, if you know when your character is supposed to die, then that also means you know when they won't. This makes the film's parade of jump scares pretty meaningless. The force at play is apparently willing to wait until the clock runs out to kill anybody, but isn't really into messing with its victims. This means lots of monsters jumping out of shadows and unsettling imagery. They work well enough if a good jump scare is all you're looking for, but there's never any tension that a character is going to die because we audiences are aware of the precise moment it is going to happen ahead of time.
And jump scares are basically all the movie has going for it. It's a PG-13 movie, which means the most horrible things all take place off-screen and with limited gore. The cast is also relatively small for your average horror movie, so there simply aren't a lot of significant deaths to be created within the story. If you're looking for creativity in that realm, you won't find it.
The plot is fairly predictable right to the end. For the briefest of moments you might think Countdown is going to go in a more surprising direction, but that's just a tease. Eventually it comes right back to where you expect.
Having said all that, if what you're looking for is something new to make you jump in your seat this Halloween, Countdown will suffice. The movie is less than 90 minutes long if you don't include the credits, so it certainly doesn't overstay its welcome. The pace moves quickly, and there's rarely a lull in the action.
Elizabeth Lail and the rest of the cast also do a solid job with the material they have. With such a short run time it might have been nice if a few extra minutes had been tacked on to let the characters breathe a bit. Nobody gets much to play with in terms of character development. Everybody gets just enough time to explain whatever piece of backstory the plot will require later on, no more, no less.
Sometimes the constraints of small budget horror movies lead to innovative concepts and creative solutions. Sometimes they just lead to stories with no more substance than exactly what it says on the tin. Countdown, is unfortunately, much more the latter example. Still, if what the label says is something you enjoy consuming, it'll likely hit the spot.