Technophobic horror is often the hallmark of the most basic of human impulses: here’s a new thing, therefore it must be scary. Filmmakers have long married that fear of the unknown with the more primal fears of the dark, of pain, of the things that go bump in the night and wait to forever torment us in the fiery bowels of Hell. It’s a tradition that has permeated the horror genre for decades. And it has all culminated in this: a film where the central premise is to take the phrase “killer app” way too literally. Great.
All posturing aside, Countdown isn’t exactly terrible, but it’s also oddly uncommitted to its gimmick of an app that tells you when you’re going to die and counts down to zero. The app doesn’t cause your death, but if you deviate from the path that would lead you to your expected death in the imminent future, you get haunted by a demon until the timer hits zero. Then the demon just kills you anyway, and not even creatively. Like, he’ll just push you down the stairs or something. This really deflates any sense of tension once you realize that the app is actually doing its victims a favor, giving them time to figure out the app’s motives and mechanisms in order to thwart their demonic possession, and it certainly doesn’t help that the haunting itself is pretty tame as these things go. The only trick Countdown has up its sleeve is jumpscare after jumpscare, never bloody or suspenseful or emotionally impactful on our confused sketches of characters, just… mildly surprising. And after a while, not even surprising. Just boring.
Ineffective setpieces are pretty fatal to a horror film, but plenty of films that aren’t otherwise scary can convey a sense of dread or urgency through their story and characters. Countdown isn’t one of those films. Protagonist Quinn (Elizabeth Lail) has two competing character arcs fighting for attention while she struggles to outsmart the three-day readout on her phone. The most pertinent to her imminent demise is learning to cope with the death of her mother and to stop blaming herself for it, which, to the film’s credit, does tie back into a theme about the inevitability of death and the futility of guilt for that which is beyond our control. But then the film limply drops that line of thought to simply motivate a subplot with Quinn’s sister (Talitha Eliana Bateman) that adds a ticking clock to an overarching plot that is already entirely ticking clock.
Quinn’s other arc is bizarrely shoehorned in, focusing on her new job as a nurse where a doctor (Peter Facinelli) abuses his power to sexually harass her. It’s a strange thread that the film picks up and drops often and at convenience. You’ll probably be wondering why it’s even there until the third act ties it in for an absurd leap of logic that desperately wants to turn this into a #TimesUp story, as if the phrase “time’s up” is some clever play on the idea of a clock counting down. It’s a brutally tortured time-filler tangent in a feature film with enough plot for a short, and it’s only barely more unnecessary than ostensible male lead Matt (Jordan Calloway), whose main plot function is to be another person to get casually, lazily spooked by the app demon when it gets off work from its day job as a Spirit Halloween animatronic.
Thankfully, Countdown isn’t entirely without its charms. Tom Segura has a delightfully nonplussed role as a cell phone merchant who thinks the evil app is bullshit but will happily take exorbitant amounts of money to hack a phone. P.J. Byrne completely runs away with the movie as a priest who casually snacks on communion wafers and apparently only got into the priesthood because he’s a huge nerd for demons. When these characters are on-screen, the film’s tedious self-seriousness falls away and you get the briefest glimpses of a movie that’s having fun with the gleeful idiocy of an app from hell. But the other eighty minutes of this ninety-minute movie are pathetically unimaginative, bizarrely muddled, and boring enough to tempt you to check your own phone before it’s over. If you’re looking for a time killer, Countdown barely lives up to the term in even the most literal sense.