The 80s were a hot topic at Fantastic Fest 2023, where Totally Killer celebrated its world premiere. Directed by Nahnatchka Khan and features a screenplay written by David Matalon, Sasha Perl-Raver, and Jen D’Angelo, Totally Killer connects the 80s and today with a photo booth, then an arcade machine, and lastly, well, a Gravitron. The film stars Kiernan Shipka, Kiernan Shipka, Charlie Gillespie, Liana Liberato, Kelcey Mawema, Julie Bowen, Ella Choi, Troy Leigh-Anne Johnson, Randall Park, Stephi Chin-Salvo, and Anna Diaz.
A Prime Original film, Totally Killer takes place in a small town where the grisly murders of three teens took place right as they all turned sixteen. 35 years later, the town is known for nothing else other than the “Sweet Sixteen Killer,” with tours and the killer’s mask becoming all of the rage at Halloween, showing how quickly people become desensitized to a true crime when the money starts flowing from it. Then the killer returns to claim the fourth victim, an overprotective mom who watched her classmates grieve and die 35 years prior.
When Jamie ignores her mom’s warnings about going out on Halloween, she comes face-to-face with the masked maniac who terrorized her mom’s generation. Running for her life through one of the creepiest piers you can imagine, she winds up accidentally time-traveling back to 1987, the year of the original killings. Forced to navigate the 1980s with her 2020s mentality, Jamie teams up with her teen mom, we’ll call her young Pam (Olivia Holt), to take down the killer once and for all before she’s stuck in the past forever.
Arriving just before the first shocking murder on Halloween night, Jamie has everything stacked against her. For one, she’s a time traveler, and people think that she’s a weird Canadian instead. The time machine is broken. Her mom is actually a mean girl leader of a group of teenage girls that absolutely terrible. And she’s really not fit for the outrageous culture of the 1980s.
With the clear Back to the Future inspiration, Totally Killer is filled with vibrant color, humor, and a love for the 80s that inspires all of its violence and its heart. But instead of feeling like an 80s greatest hit, Totally Killer does its best to feel lived in while Shipka’s Jamie is the audience stand-in, watching it all happen. The humor and references in the past don’t ever feel like shoehorned expressions of what the 80s are supposed to be as a cultural memory. Instead, it feels like one very specific memory that the writer and director are referencing.
But it isn’t just the nostalgia and meanness of the 80s that’s captured. It’s also the way in which the younger generations react to it. Jamie’s one-liners, while clearly Gen Z expressions witnessed on social media, are always necessary. This is a testament to building out Jamie as a character and ultimately making her dialogue believable because we understand the other parts of herself.
As a slasher, Totally Killer deeply understands the genre and its tropes. Through that understanding, it is able to either subvert them or play up so big that the camp comes through. Comfortable within its horror subgenre, the candy-colored sets sell the violence in a way that captures the absurdity happening on camera. At the same time, the film reaches into the genre world of sci-fi and embraces its weirdness and the hilarious complexity of time travel and does it to the fullest.
In the film, time travel is like a constantly moving river. The changes made in the past trickle through to the present, and you get to play a little more loose with stepping out of the river and not erasing yourself—at least the version of yourself that is stepped out in the first place. On that topic, changes to the timeline are so effortlessly funny that they don’t have to be giant all of the time. Instead, they are podcast inconsistencies, notes Jamie left at a crime scene, and more. Those small quirks help make the film an effervescent kind of funny that keeps the thrills and joy flowing, even with some pretty gnarly kills.
The only place that Totally Killer stumbles is in its pacing between the past and the present. The jumping between the two isn’t always seamless, even if the humor of the changes lands every time. It’s the way the film transitions from one to another when it chooses to pull forward to the present that seems odd, often immediately after big moments in the past that could have used more time to breathe. That said, every time travel movie has this hiccup, for the most part, making this a minor critique for a relatively catchy script and direction.
But even with some awkward choices, the film’s twists, sold by its actors, especially Shipka and Holt keep the audience thoroughly engaged and laughing as much as murmuring “oh sh*t” with their hand over their mouth. With well executed misdirects in the mystery, the killer reveal has a hit that lands perfectly.
The blend of fun and just a bit of a mean spirit keeps Totally Killer solidly as a movie night recommendation. It lives and breathes the genres it is in, and with that, the comedy blends with the films that have inspired it along the way. With a fantastic cast that sells you on every eye roll, mean girl joke, or vapid play to get in someone’s bed, Totally Killer is totally fantastic.
Totally Killer is streaming now, exclusively on Prime Video.
With a fantastic cast that sells you on every eye roll, mean girl joke, or vapid play to get in someone’s bed, Totally Killer is totally fantastic.