- Nahnatchka Khan
- Kiernan Shipka, Olivia Holt, Julie Bowen, Randall Park, Liana Liberato
- 106 min.
- Release Date
Totally Killer features three of the most overused themes in recent genre movies: time travel, 1980s nostalgia, and masked killers. It’s as though the filmmakers wrote bankable elements on scraps of paper and drew three at random from a hat, and so the result follows a teenage girl who travels back to the ’80s to save her mother from a knife-wielding killer in a Halloween mask. The list of this horror-comedy’s influences and antecedents could go on forever, ranging from Back to the Future (1985) to Halloween (1978) to Netflix’s Stranger Things, to name just three. But a similar idea was already deployed in 2015’s The Final Girls, an underseen yet superior genre mashup that balanced its high-concept setup with an emotional thrust driving the narrative. By contrast, Totally Killer spends too much time worrying about sci-fi mechanics and era-specific inappropriateness to feel like a well-rounded slasher. But it boasts a likable cast and generally entertains, making it an easy recommendation for a late-night Halloween season watch when you’re looking to stream something on Prime Video.
Thirty-five years ago, in a sleepy suburban town, the Sweet Sixteen Killer claimed three teenage girls, stabbing them each 16 times before disappearing without a trace. Ever since, the townsfolk have been obsessed with his legend, even donning Halloween masks to match his plastic-looking face reminiscent of Max Headroom. The teen protagonist, Jamie (Kiernan Shipka), clashes with her protective mother, Pam (Julie Bowen). But her mom’s obsessive safeguarding stems from being the sole survivor of the friend group slain by the killer. When the masked maniac returns and completes his work, leaving Pam dead, Jamie makes plans with her best friend, the science whiz Amelia (Kelcey Mawema), who has developed a time machine inside a carnival photo booth, to send Jamie back to 1987 to stop the killer before the original murders. Never mind the unconvincing science behind some cheap LED wires and blinking lights inside a crappy old fair commodity; never mind that Jamie never mourns her mother. Just go with it.
The screenplay (credited to David Matalon, Sasha Perl-Raver, and Jen D’Angelo) rushes to get Jamie back to the ’80s. Once she’s there, Totally Killer spends a while in fish-out-of-water mode, with the Gen Zer adapting to the politically incorrect and generally mean-spirited era. To her horror, she easily enrolls at her mother’s high school because the registrar has a loose adherence to the rules—so does everyone else, prompting Jamie’s progressive yet morally superior attitude about the “problematic” behavior she witnesses. Then she meets her mother, Pam, played by Olivia Holt as a teen, who heads a group known as The Mollys—bullying alpha girls who dress in Molly Ringwald attire. Their douchey guy friends include Jamie’s future gym teacher, who throws her out of a party, belches in her face, and regularly grabs his crotch, plus a hot-bodied guy (Charlie Gillespie) she quickly realizes is her future dad.
Almost as scary as the era’s politics is Totally Killer’s pivot into a slasher whodunit scenario borrowed from Scream (1996), with a long list of suspects and red herrings to keep the viewer guessing. But director Nahnatchka Khan, a longtime television writer for shows from American Dad to Fresh Off the Boat, and helmer of the affecting rom-com Always Be My Maybe (2019), demonstrates that she’s more comfortable with comedy than horror. Although the violence is fittingly bloody and visceral, there’s not much suspense to be had, and many thrilling scenes feel undercut by the comedy. Take when Liana Liberato from this year’s Scream VI is stabbed on a waterbed: it’s a disturbing, bloody moment that Khan sets to Chris de Burgh’s “Lady in Red” (Get it?). Painfully obvious jokes aside, the mystery leads to a Scooby-Doo! finish muddled by time travel logic and a clunky carnival ride finale.
Still, it’s just passable enough. But it’s difficult not to think how much better The Final Girls does a similar concept in terms of humor, scares, casting, and filmmaking. However derivative the material may be, Totally Killer draws interest thanks to Shipka (from Mad Men and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina) and the young cast, who do well with the feature’s many funny moments. Unfortunately, Khan doesn’t have a cinematic eye, and cinematographer Judd Overton’s overlit scenes appear devoid of any style or visual panache that might enliven them. Produced in part by Jason Blum’s offshoot Blumhouse Television for Amazon’s Prime Video, the movie has a small-screen feel. It’s made with a casualness befitting its streaming debut, with the sort of filmmaking designed to look crystal clear on an iPhone or tablet. Either there or on the couch, Totally Killer will tide over hungry viewers with an appetite for new horror movies over Spooky Season, at least for a few days, until something more substantial and filling comes along.