Countdown (2019)

Countdown first published by Sight & Sound, Jan 2020

Review: ‘Countdown’ is the latest killer app to spread virally across the ether,  promising to predict to users the exact time of their death – and the terms and conditions of its contract are binding.

The high concept of this feature debut from writer/director Justin Dec combines the tense fatalism of the Final Destination franchise with the meme-based mayhem of Jay Dahl’s Halloween Party (2018), as newly graduated nurse Quinn (Elizabeth Lail) must race to find a way around the impending doom of herself, her teenaged sister Jordan (Talitha Eliana Bateman) and her new friend Matt (Jordan Calloway) before the clock runs out on them. In the meantime, as their time gets closer, they are stalked by a terrifying shadowy trickster that sometimes adopts the form of whatever is plaguing their conscience. There is also a constant succession of notices sent by the app (and signalled by a digital scream) which bombards users with a nerve-shredding memento mori, in a rare case of a film whose alarming impact might actually be enhanced by the sounds of audience’s mobile phones going off. 

  If cheating death seems a rather abstract concept, hacking an app’s code or outwitting a demon are altogether more tangible endeavours (even if ultimately the effort to so do may prove equally futile) – and so Quinn and company attempt both technological and mythico-ritual solutions to defeat their prescribed destiny. This is another respect in which Countdown stands out from rival programmes: for while randy phone salesman Derek (Tom Segura) and hipster priest Father John (P.J. Byrne) are strictly there to parcel out exposition, and are the kinds of characters who would normally be given merely perfunctory dialogue and peripheral status, here they are presented as fully-fleshed, funny characters in their own right, supplying plenty of comic relief – Derek’s randy snark, John’s wide-eyed geekiness – to offset all the against-the-clock suspense. Derek even gets to appear in his own mid-credits coda.  

The characters here may be pursued by the shape-shifting demon Ozhin (Dirk Rogers), but they are also bedevilled by their pasts – Matt because, as a child, he wronged his terminally ill brother, and Quinn and Jordan because they both suspect that they were instrumental in their mother’s death. It is the burden of this guilt which, in a manner both metaphorical and literalised by demonic intervention, prevents them living their full lives. Contrast the predatory doctor (Peter Facinelli) who makes Quinn’s (and other nurses’) workplace a hell: his sociopathic lack of conscience would appear to be connected to the many decades of continued life apportioned him by the Countdown app. To survive, paradoxically Quinn must die, in an expiatory act of self-sacrifice that will upset and reset the devil’s coded calibrations – yet while she may be reborn, Quinn is not alone in having a Version 2.0, leaving open the not unwelcome promise of a sequel. Meanwhile, Countdown‘s response to its own finite duration is to fill that brief time with as many fun thrills as it can.

Synopsis: Patient Evan tells nurse Quinn that his girlfriend Courtney died exactly when new phone app Countdown said she would, and his own death is several hours away. Quinn downloads Countdown, and learns she has three days to live. Haunted by Courtney’s ghost, Evan dies in the hospital staircase, exactly when predicted. Realising that Countdown is no joke, Quinn starts seeing things. Unable to delete the app, Quinn buys a brand new phone at Derek’s shop – but the app reappears on it, and the countdown continues. Quinn meets Countdown user Matt, who has even less time. Quinn’s younger sister Jordan has also downloaded Countdown, and is due to die minutes before Quinn. They visit Father John, who tells them of the demon Ozhin, and suggests hacking the app. Derek hacks it and sets their death times for decades later – but the times reset. John suggests that, if anyone dies before or after their allotted time, Ozhin will be defeated; so until Matt’s time has passed, they should stay inside a ritual circle keeping them safe from Ozhin. Impersonating Matt’s late brother, Ozhin lures Matt out. Matt is killed by a car. Knowing that Countdown has assigned decades of life to a sexually predatory hospital doctor, Quinn tries to kill him, but Ozhin intervenes. As Ozhin is about to take Jordan, Quinn injects herself with a morphine overdose, dying before her time. Ozhin disintegrates. Following written instructions, Jordan resuscitates Quinn with adrenaline. Quinn receives a phone alert that Countdown Version 2.0 is uploading.

Anton Bitel