Even the lowly jump scare can be a source of pleasure. But at its most mechanical, this least imaginative of stock devices in current horror cinema elicits less fright than annoyance — rather like a repetitive, low-level electric shock, one just potent enough to rate as an irritant.
Ninety minutes of that feeling adds up to “Countdown,” a bombastically dumb new chiller that probably would have been called “Killer App” if that title hadn’t already been used several times. That doesn’t stop every other idea here from being well-worn, and it likely won’t stop writer-director Justin Dec’s debut feature from pulling in moderately decent returns as it opens the weekend before Halloween. But making a movie about terror by phone needn’t have translated into something so void of nuance and style it might as well be watched on one.
The premise here is simple: A mystery app that tells people when they’ll die — down to the number of remaining years, days, minutes and seconds — also ensures they’ll be hounded by malevolent ghoulies if they try to escape that fate. Unhappy to learn she’s got just three hours left at the start is a teen (Anne Winters) who successfully evades her boyfriend’s (Dillon Lane) post-party DUI. Yet she suffers a less explicable demise in the supposed safety of her own bathroom anyway, right on schedule.
That boyfriend lands in a hospital, where his spooky tale is related to staff including new RN Quinn (Elizabeth Lail). She’s skeptical — until he becomes another casualty, and her own alleged imminent extinction grows less laughable. She soon susses that once downloaded, the sinister app can’t be deleted. Worse, it sends periodic heckling alerts that your time is running out. Worst, unpleasant evidence suggests that if you try to cheat mortality by changing your probably-life-threatening plans (say, canceling a road trip), then Death will come for you, in the usual form of flickering lights, sudden shadowy bogeyman appearances, and many many jump scares.
Quinn is quickly joined in her plight by teenage sibling Jordan (Talitha Bateman), as well as handsome stranger Matt (Jordan Calloway). All three share something beyond cause for immediate panic: Guilt over a loved one’s prior demise, in his case a little brother’s, in theirs a mother whose car-wreck death both sisters feel responsible for.
Just why this would make one more susceptible to the deadly Countdown app is anyone’s guess, since Dec’s script doesn’t bother constructing much in the way of rules or backstory for his central menace. A priest (P.J. Byrne) decides it’s a “curse” caused by demons or something — but then, his irksome comedy-relief figure isn’t credible as a cleric, let alone as an expert on supernatural evil. Also not making much sense is the eventual notion that another party might be substituted for an anticipated corpse, though that does allow potential justice to be served to Quinn’s sexually harassing hospital superior Dr. Sullivan (Peter Facinelli).
“Countdown” moves at a fair clip. But it’s the kind of pacing that feels not exciting but pushy, as if afraid you’ll notice otherwise how flimsy the writing is, and how non-existent the atmospherics. With its bright, flat look, the film feels televisual, with no personality allowed to creep into the competent but generic packaging elements. If the leads are fine under the circumstances, several support performances border on caricature in unamusing ways.
All that’s really going on here is a shipload of jump scares, which are adequately handled if never remotely inspired. When they’re as untethered to any real character involvement, novel situations, unnerving concepts or even coherent basic mythology as they are in “Countdown” — where the ghouls have grabby hands and glowing eyes simply because, well, whaddya expect? — sometimes umpteen jolts can make a dull-witted entertainment only seem duller.