Director: Justin Dec
Stars: Elizabeth Lail, Jordan Calloway, Talitha Bateman
At the time of writing there’s a news cycle that won’t die; a stir caused by Martin Scorsese calling comic book movies ‘theme park rides’ instead of real cinema. It’s become the question to ask anyone in the business who’ll answer and, as such, objectivity when it comes to the art form is back under scrutiny.
No film criticism is truly objective; we all bring something of ourselves to the table, and I welcome that. I look for and value the personal ‘take’. The Lost Highway Hotel’s moniker in the last year has changed to the snappy ‘See Cinema Differently’. Not a manifesto of contrariness (although sometimes…) but rather an expression of how we all look at art with our own eyes.
Which is a pretty lofty way of opening up on Countdown, this year’s by-the-numbers studio horror picture timed to arrive the week of Halloween. Sometimes, these turn out to be surprising wins (think Happy Death Day two years ago). Sometimes… they don’t.
In truth I went along to Countdown anticipating the latter in every respect. A ‘killer app’ that tells you when you’re going to die, and a cloaked boogeyman lurking in the shadows to make sure that you do? This has the flavour of something that got shouted out in a pitch meeting and then trolled into existence.
And it does tilt toward expectation. The order of the day is broadly-drawn young middle class Americans, frustrating cymbal-crash jump scares and fleetingly powerful demons. Hardly revolutionary, especially at the end of a decade that has already provided us the Insidious and Conjuring franchises, not to mention their numerous imitators and offshoots. The app throws in some heavy-handed technophobia, and in a manner that also feels derivative seeing as we only just got through Wounds last week. Mobile phones are crippling attention spans. We know.
Quinn (Elizabeth Lail) is a newly qualified nurse with an estranged father and younger sister, who downloads the sinister Countdown app like everyone else around her. It’s the latest lame fad. And, like everyone around her, she skips past the terms and conditions. Too bad. If she hadn’t she’d have been clued in to the supernatural trick of this new, morbid trend – the app will foretell how many years/months/days/hours/minutes/seconds you have to live and do so accurately, but if you try to alter your fate, creepy ol’ demon Ozhin will come to rip your entrails out. The spectre of Final Destination hangs over her predicament like an ominous shadow.
What’s more, she also has a proto-rapist work colleague to dodge in the guise of Peter Facinelli. With just two days on her clock, Quinn pulls out all the stops to beat the odds in what seems like a rigged game.
Countdown is laden with lumpy dialogue (“Don’t be such a nasty little bi-atch; its just an app” “It seems like demon stuff to me…”), populated with charmed lives that you can’t quite relate to, and even on occasion flows as though someone took the shears to it and then struggled stitching it back together. Yet in spite of its clumsiness and its predictability, there’s something goofily enjoyable about turning up to these little ‘rides’. Low-budget Halloween horrors aren’t the mega theme parks that people travel whole continents to experience; they’re the touring fairgrounds with just enough pep to put a rush in your stomach.
So, sure, I turned up to it with a healthy (and well-founded) dose of cynicism, but I also entered into a knowing contract with Countdown. I knew the terms and conditions by heart. And, meeting the movie at its own level, I still enjoyed myself. Lail is fine in the lead. Not exceptional, but she commits to the material. Said material is hokey, yes, and over-familiar, but writer/director Justin Dec is well-schooled in the rules and he adheres to them, occasionally even drumming up some suspense to crash with those interminable “Boo!” moments (guess what, someone makes someone else jump by tapping them on the shoulder).
What do I tell you, then? Countdown is silly and a bit shit and will probably not be remembered by many once a few more Halloweens have rolled around. It’s ending is annoying, and I’m still not entirely sure whether its tilt toward the #MeToo movement isn’t shrewdly exploitative in its own way. A calculated (and shoehorned) attempt at ‘relevancy’. But I also giggled, and rolled my eyes, and got the kind of disposable young adult-orientated cinema experience I came for.
And who knows, maybe this’ll act as a gateway film for some kids looking to find more fertile explorations of mortality and the death wish (*cough* It Follows *cough*)…
Did I call this cinema just then…?