Review by C.J. Bunce
Although it doesn’t quite deliver the 1980s vibe and never settles in on a tone, Totally Killer is a fun ride with a good, twisty mystery. It’s sci-fi and slasher horror set in part in 1987. It takes place at an amusement park. It has time travel. And it stars Chilling Adventures of Sabrina actor Kiernan Shipka. That sounds like a winner because it is. The movie arrived this weekend on Prime Video just as audiences are clamoring for new Halloween content. The next entry from Blumhouse, the studio that changed the vibe of horror movies taking 1980s-style stories and delivering them with a comedy edge, it’s rightly marketed as Back to the Future meets Scream, but it leans more into the comedy. The vibe is more Boo, Bitch than Halloween or Stranger Things, but as with the recent string of Blumhouse movies, it doesn’t disappoint.
23-year-old Shipka plays 16-year-old Jamie Hughes, who performs her character more like a disgruntled thirtysomething, which makes for funnier scenes when she takes a friend’s time machine back to 1987. The Sweet Sixteen Killer attacked North Vernon in that year, killing three teens, wearing what looks like a mash-up mask of Beavis (Beavis and Butthead didn’t premiere until 4 years later) and Max Headroom, stabbing each victim 16 times–a dual reason for the moniker. The show starts with Jamie’s mother getting killed in the present day, presumably by the same killer from the past. Fortunately her best friend Amelia (played by Kelcey Mawema) has a mom who worked on a time machine in her youth and left the details for her to learn and perfect into her own machine (it sounds convoluted, but it’s not). In a struggle with the killer, Jamie accidentally is sent back to the past where she buddies with Amelia’s teen mom (played by Troy Leigh-Anne Johnson), and must befriend the victims–known then as the Mollys since they dress like the actress from her films–which includes her mom, played by Olivia Holt. Jamie’s parents are nothing like she expects to find, making for lots of good comedy moments.
Easy parallels are here to elements in the Final Destination movies and Blumhouse’s Happy Death Day and Happy Death Day 2U—Jamie and her mom don’t get along, and Jamie’s motivation is saving her mom in the past. As she makes changes following her time travel, the script takes a clever turn and points to the Mandela Effect to explain the changes to the characters in the future, although it doesn’t turn to the time loops of the Happy Death Day franchise. The flash forwards are a nice twist, a fresh update for the genre, and the script is adept at picking apart time travel lore in sci-fi movies and TV to make it work just right for this story.
The script doesn’t shy away from its obvious parallels to the movies and tropes it’s playing with, including multiple Back to the Future, Mean Girls, and Michael Myers references. It’s also not emulating actual 1980s movies or styles–instead of the sadistic violence of Funhouse, we get the setting, teen humor, and yes, the bloody murders, but without the lingering camera and overdone gore of 1980s horror and earlier Blumhouse movies.
With some additional steps, some more nuanced camera work and maybe some filters, the film might have better transported viewers back to 1987 to provide a more distinct change of time and place like in The Wizard of Oz, and some of that cool vibe from Stranger Things and Halloween Kills. Instead the cinematic elements feel more like it was made for TV. Does it matter? Probably not. It just could have been something more were the creators just a little more ambitious. The clever storytelling, and the way it addresses the victims following Jamie’s travel to the past certainly were worthy of a little more.
The comedy tone is similar to that of Boo, Bitch and She-Hulk. It pokes fun at the stupid parts of horror movies, but not to the extent of the parody from Scream, while also pointing its finger at the dumber elements of humans in general, like wearing real serial killer costumes for Halloween. The special effects aren’t all that elaborate, especially the very Doctor Who-vian time travel devices, but as used they play for maximum effect, especially a transport aboard the Quantum Drop ride at the amusement park, basically a centripetal force ride like the Silly Silo, where the killer, Jamie, and her mom face the film’s climactic scene. A fun bit to watch for are prop elements that get transported and handed off between characters without the normal overt discussions about them typically found in the genre.
Lochlyn Munro plays Jamie’s grown-up dad and Julie Bowen her grown-up mom. Marvel’s Randall Park plays a police chief. Liana Liberato, Stephi Chin-Salvo, and Anna Diaz play the other Mollys.
Totally Killer is directed by Fresh Off the Boat writer Nahnatchka Khan–a good second film effort for the director. Catch it now, streaming this weekend on Prime Video.