Look, we all know our phones are killing us — in particular, those pesky apps we can’t stop downloading. Pretty much everything you put on your phone is collecting your data and selling it to the highest bidder, and we all know what Facebook and Twitter are doing to the world. But what if your app was literally killing you? Such is the crux of Countdown the new STX Films horror movie about a mysterious app that tells you exactly how long there is until you die — then kills you and feeds on your soul. Ah, technology, ever a wonder.
With Countdown in theaters this weekend, I had the chance to jump on the phone with writer/director Justin Dec to talk about creating his high-concept horror movie, updating (and inventing) a demon for the digital age, and the pitfalls that hold most tech-horror back.
For Dec, it’s been a journey towards his debut feature film. A longtime shorts director and production assistant, Dec first got the idea for Countdown while staring at a timer countdown on his phone and imagining what would happen if it was counting down towards his death. “Totally normal thought, I know,” the filmmaker said with a chuckle. The next step? Hearing the song “Flying Purple People-Eater” for the first time, which inspired Dec to make his big-bad a soul-munching demon that came for you at the end of the Countdown.
Dec turned his idea into a short and was taking it around to film festivals when he showed it to producers Sean Anders and John Morris, who told him to take it off the festival circuit — they wanted to make it into a feature, and right away. For Dec, the question then became a matter of what to do with the base idea.
“What’s this movie about? What does this mean? If you take away the magic of it all, it’s a story about death,” Dec said. “It’s a story about how people cope with death. And if you found out you were going to die, what would your priorities be?” Since it was based on an app, their initial instinct was to set it in high school, but after walking into a meeting where they wanted anything but teen horror, they decided to age the story up and largely set it in the hospital where Quinn (Elizabeth Lail) works as a nurse.
But the human story is only one part of a horror movie. Dec also had to figure out his demon. “I started researching it,” Dec said of his paranormal threat. “It started with ‘We need to name this guy’ and we were looking up demon names and then I thought, ‘Am I crazy? I’m not going to use a real demon name.’ That’s just testing dumb waters” he explained with a laugh.
Dec continued, “So I made up a name and then read a whole bunch about the methods that priests used to use in exorcisms, and how to ward off demons with blessing the salt and creating barriers. All that came from research, but the story itself is entirely made up and so is the name.”
When it came time to designing his demon-turned-digital nightmare, Dec got to collaborate with one of the biggest names in the creature design game. “I was super lucky to work with KNB, who are an Academy Award-winning makeup house and effects house,” the filmmaker said. He collaborated with Howard Berger, the FX artist behind everything from Day of the Dead to Kill Bill to The Walking Dead, and got to work on the look.
It actually started as kind of like a Harry Potter dementor, where it was just a completely cloaked figure,” Dec explained. “No face, but it still kind of turned and looked at you like the alien in Aliens, even though it didn’t have eyes, it could see you. So we designed that and then we looked at it and we were like ‘Something is missing.'” It was time for a face… and some horns.
“We started pulling pieces away and we started with the mouth,” Dec continued, “and the concept was that this sharp-toothed demon had been feasting on souls for too long that the fabrics had been shredded at its mouth and stained with blood. Then we started talking about horns. The idea was, what if the fabric was always there and the horns kind of grew out and fused to the fabric and became one. We took a look at that and loved it.
The last thing was, Howard said, ‘What about eyes?’ And I really didn’t want eyes. I’d already felt like we showed too much, and he mocked up something and showed it to me and I was immediately like, ‘Yep, we need eyes. That looks awesome.’ That was about two days away from starting filming, it was right down to the wire.”
While the demon represents something ancient, sucking souls throughout the centuries, his current form of curse comes in a very modern context. And while it would be easy to lean in on the messaging about the dangers of technology, Countdown, fortunately, knows you know how bad your addiction to your phone is and doesn’t drill down on the obvious.
“I want it to be there in the subtext. I didn’t just want to say our phones are killing us — a lack of balance is what’s killing us,” Dec said. “It is important to put down our phones, look around, and take stock of the people in our lives and invest our time there. We are super phone obsessed. It’s there in the subtext, but I didn’t want to hit it too hard on the head.”
And there was one more pitfall of the genre he hoped to evade, focusing too much on the tech itself “The other thing about tech horror movies that drives me crazy — it’s a fine line. If you lean too hard into the tech, it just becomes silly,” he said. “There’s that joke in Forgetting Sarah Marshall about the killer phone, then it’s just ridiculous. But if you just allow it to be a conduit for the horror to come into these characters’ lives and let it just be as simple as that, I think you have a better shot of it working.”
Countdown is now playing in theaters nationwide.