Film Review – Totally Killer
Now here is a movie that wears its influences on its sleeve like a badge of honor. Totally Killer (2023) makes no secret that it pulls from sci-fi and horror films, specifically time travel stories and slasher flicks. It goes so far as to mention Back to the Future (1985) and provide blatant visual call backs to Halloween (1978). But it doesn’t just pay homage to the past. It allows for a tongue-in-cheek prodding of all the tropes and cliches that come from these genres. This is a romp that is fully aware of the absurdity existing in it. It celebrates the good, the bad, and the goofy with equal consideration. Is this yet another nostalgic trip back to the 1980s? Yes it is, but at least it’s a good one.
Director Nahnatchka Khan (with writers David Matalon, Sasha Perl-Raver, and Jen D’Angelo) make the smart decision by not taking the material too seriously. Time travel movies and slashers are rife with well-known twists and turns. The production works around these narrative traps by saying “Eh, don’t think about it too much.” This may sound dismissive when in fact it’s the best approach. Instead of focusing on the paradox of time travel, or worrying about the dumb decisions made by victims of a masked killer, the movie asks us to just sit back and enjoy the ride. This works best as an in-the-moment experience, rather than a logical one. When you have a movie in which a character faces off against a villain in two different eras thirty years apart, you understand the tone the filmmakers were going for.
Much of what makes Totally Killer work is due to the performance of Kiernan Shipka. She plays Jamie, a high school teen who gets caught in the middle of a very weird adventure. It’s established early on that Jamie’s small town was rocked by the murder of three high school girls – Heather (Anna Diaz), Marisa (Stephi Chin-Salvo), and Tiffany (Liana Liberato). The event was so traumatic that Jamie’s mother Pam (Julie Bowen) has become overprotective of her. Unfortunately, we discover that the masked killer has returned to wreck havoc in the community. Things get even more complicated when Jamie, with the help of a classmate’s science project, gets sent back to 1987 just prior to the original murders. Teaming up with the teenage version of her mom (Olivia Holt), Jamie attempts to catch the killer before they commit the crimes, and thus stopping their reappearance in 2023.
Whew, that’s a lot to take in. When we step back and examine the narrative from a distance, we see that there are a lot of moving parts. In 1987, Jamie becomes a fish out of water, having to deal with a high school society where cultural insensitivity, bullying, misogyny, lack of supervision, and raging hormones are all just accepted ways of life. She goes from the rebellious teen to the parental figure, trying to get anyone to listen to her warnings. This set up leads to several meta jokes about slashers and the characters that populate them. Reminiscent of Scream (1996), Jamie lays out the rules to survive an attack, often to deaf ears. Shipka plays Jamie’s exasperation with a keen sense of comedic timing. With a dry, slightly jaded delivery, Shipka hits a punch line with effortless ability. At the same time, she gives the character a surprising level of emotion. Seeing the world her mother grew up in gives Jamie a new appreciation of her.
The production design, costuming, and make up doesn’t recreate 1987 as it actually was, but how it is remembered. Puffy hairdos, waist-high jeans, tracksuits and shoulder pads run rampant. During a Halloween party, a character mentions how several people dressed up as a different version of Molly Ringwald. The horror elements are effective but not overtly gruesome. The killer has a fetish for stabbing his victims sixteen times – hence the nickname “Sweet Sixteen Killer” – but we don’t see anything too disturbing. In fact, the most gore-filled sequence is the opening, where we are led through a short documentary-like montage covering the original murders. Harping on people’s fascination with true crime, the sequence displays the victims in all their bloody glory, as a voiceover fills us in on the details.
Overall, this was a fun time, with Shipka acting as the anchor holding everything together. But that’s not to say it isn’t without its shortcomings. Most notably is the killer. Sporting a blonde haired mask and dark clothing, the killer’s design is fairly bland and unremarkable. When we discover who this person is and their relationship to the rest of the cast, it comes off as underwhelming. The same can be said for many of the supporting characters. Jamie’s dad (Lochlyn Munro as the adult, Charlie Gillespie as the teen) is nearly a non-factor. Lauren Creston (Troy Leigh-Anne Johnson/Kimberly Huie) and Amelia Creston (Kelley Mawema) should have more important roles, since its their scientific contributions that allowed Jamie to time travel in the first place. However, their impact gets watered down because of how much stuff is going on. For as entertaining and clever as the narrative is, some of the singular bits don’t work as well as intended. There’s a running joke involving blow jobs that just never hit. The fact that it kept coming back was cringe inducing. It was as though the production was trying to draw laughs out of something that wasn’t very funny to begin with.
The good outweighs the bad in Totally Killer. It’s self-aware without being overbearing, satirical without being smug, and celebratory without being heavy-handed. It finds the right balance between sci-fi and horror, despite its flaws. Yes, we’ve seen a lot of what happens here already – sometimes in better movies. Luckily, there’s enough of a twist so that it isn’t a straight up carbon copy. This is pure escapism – a “Popcorn Movie” through and through. Sometimes, that’s precisely all we need.