Totally Killer is a horror comedy born from the directive talents of Nahnatchka Khan (Fresh off the Boat) and the clever screenplay of David Matalon, Sasha Perl-Raver, and Jen D’Angelo. When it comes to genre offerings, horror comedies can often be an excuse for low-budget B-movies that aren’t trying for serious but still miss the mark when it comes to genuine laughs. Fortunately, this is not the case with Totally Killer. Instead, the movie turns tired tropes fresh and delivers cracks of comedy that prove the creative team knows what fans love (and hate) about horror and sci-fi.
With the release of its first trailer, Totally Killer got a lot of comparisons to 2015’s The Final Girls. After all, the plot revolves around Jamie (Kiernan Shipka), an angsty, socially aware teenager who travels back in time to 1987 to save her mother and her mother’s friends from the infamous Sweet Sixteen Killer. However, The Final Girls comparisons are unwarranted. While the film takes influence from famous sci-fi/horror movies, it doesn’t make genre tropes the focus of its comedy. Instead, it takes aim at decade disparities. The ’80s were a different time, and Totally Killer reminds audiences of that without being overly judgmental.
Totally Killer Embraces the Good and Bad of the ’80s
Sometimes, decade-specific settings can get lost in modern movies. In contrast, Totally Killer truly embraces the good, the bad, and the ugly of everything that comes with the ’80s. The juxtaposition of socially aware Jamie navigating a not-so-politically-correct climate makes for comedy gold. From racially insensitive school mascots to nicknames like “Fat Trish,” Jamie frequently encourages her mother and mean girl peers to be more sensitive. Shipka’s deadpan comedic timing makes it work, and the movie never lingers on any one joke too long. It makes the point without necessarily making a judgment.
The ’80s teens often ignore Jamie’s recommendations. They aren’t yet equipped for the 2023 landscape, and it’s equally funny and uncomfortable to watch. The entire vibe is reminiscent of Marty McFly’s famous guitar scene in Back to the Future when he says, “I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet, but your kids will love it.” It’s not to say that behavior is excusable, but it’s a reminder that teenagers aren’t the finished product. Jamie’s parents, Pam (Julie Bowen/Olivia Holt) and Blake (Lochlyn Munro/Charlie Gillespie), are perfect examples of this. Their adult counterparts resemble very little of the insensitive, “horny” teenagers we meet in 1987.
It’s a neat way of delving into the Gen X versus Gen Z debate littered across social media. Older generations frequently criticize younger ones, but a time jump proves they weren’t perfect either. Likewise, Jamie’s initial ungrateful assessment of her mother quickly changes when she witnesses the trauma she’s been through firsthand.
Horror and Sci-Fi Influences Are on Glorious Display
The Back to the Future comparison works so well because it’s arguably the movie’s biggest influence. When Jamie discovers her friend Amelia (Kelcey Mawema) is building a time machine for the high school science fair, things take a wild sci-fi turn. That moment, in particular, confirms Totally Killer doesn’t plan to take itself too seriously, and you shouldn’t either. The Back to the Future inspiration is blatantly obvious, and Jamie points it out just as the audience comes to a similar conclusion. It even goes a step further with the town sheriff saying, “I hate time travel movies. They never make any sense.”
It’s a similar type of self-awareness that movies like Scream and Shaun of the Dead paved the way for. Back to the Future is far from the movie’s only influence, though. Totally Killer is chock full of Easter eggs that are sure to elicit a few smiles. Heck, even the Sweet Sixteen Killer’s mask looks like Michael Myers got a hold of some hair bleach.
Totally Killer Sacrifices a Touch of Emotional Resonance for Comedy
The movie’s main focus is Jamie and her mother, Pam, and it does a solid job of exploring their relationship. Not only do we care about Pam because of her importance in Jamie’s life, but she gets the most character development. Both Bowen and Holt do an excellent job of portraying the character and remain engaging in all their scenes. It should be no surprise to The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina fans that Shipka impresses as Jamie. She sells the eye-rolling teenager bit as easily as the more mature version of Jamie, who is desperate to put things right. While Jamie grapples with the murder of her mother, Totally Killer never spends too much time in the darkness, quickly trading tougher themes for comedy. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the finale lacks some of the expected emotional resonance as a result.
Aside from Amelia and her mother, Lauren (Kimberly Huie/Troy Leigh-Anne Johnson), the remaining cast is rather one-dimensional. However, one could argue that’s the point. ’80s slashers are, of course, filled with stereotypical characters. Totally Killer is clearly emulating that and does so quite successfully. You might not be sobbing when an unlucky protagonist dies, but you’ll still be rooting for them. Sure, it would have been nice if character development extended beyond “I don’t do blowjobs” for some, but was it an oversight or purposeful commentary? With horror’s messy relationship between sex and violence, it screams the latter.
As far as slashers go, Totally Killer leans more toward comedy than it does horror. It knows exactly the type of movie it wants to be, resulting in a consistent tone and even pacing. The ’80s were a high point for horror and, most certainly, slashers. Not to mention, the success of properties like Stranger Things proves that ’80s nostalgia is at an all-time high. Totally Killer acknowledges this, homages this, and honors this. Yet, it still manages to tell a unique story with lots of laughs and heart.