With that title, that font, and that poster, I don’t think there’s any doubt of where this film was going to go. Yes, it is indeed a tongue-in-cheek slasher based in the 1980s, just as you probably expected. It’s the 2020s so for whatever reason that means the 80s is now the hottest property for some nostalgic goodness. So is Totally Killer a film predictably full of cyan-pink graphics and a synth-wave soundtrack? Is it some sick bizarro world version of The Goldbergs? No, it isn’t. In fact, Totally Killer is much more special, and more of the type of film that you would have expected to have seen in the 80s (smartphones notwithstanding).


Vernon is your typical small American town – everyone knows each other and the only drama that ever happens is usually just rumours surrounding who’s dating whom. That was until 1987, when the “Sweet 16 Killer” struck. Dressed in what looks suspiciously like a copyright-friendly Max Headroom mask, they would kill a girl on her 16th birthday by stabbing her 16 times, and then target two of her 16-year-old friends shortly afterward and kill them via the same method. It’s been 35 years since that incident and the town doesn’t seem too cut-up about it; quite the opposite actually. The Max Headroom Sweet 16 Killer mask is the most popular Halloween costume around, one of the town’s residents has found widespread fame with his true-crime podcast and tours surrounding the killer, and the first victim’s house even got turned into a morbid burger joint. However, this Halloween, it seems like the killer may have returned. When our protagonist Jamie (Kiernan Shipka) goes to a concert, leaving her mother Pam (Julie Bowen) home alone to serve the trick-or-treaters, the Sweet 16 Killer strikes. Pam has been preparing for this possibility for the past 35 years, and despite putting up a decent fight, eventually becomes their belated fourth victim.

Around this time, the high school’s science fair is gearing up and Jamie’s best friend Amelia (Kelcey Mawema) is attempting to turn an old photo booth into a Bill-and-Ted-esque time machine, of all things. A few days after her mother’s murder, the killer comes after Jamie and she finds herself taking refuge in Amelia’s time machine. After being attacked in the booth, the killer stabs the control panel and Jamie accidentally sends herself back to 1987, two days before the Sweet 16 Killer is due to strike that very first time. Jamie meets her teenage mother (Olivia Holt) and finds out that not only was she best friends with the killer’s three victims, but she’s also a mega bitch. In fact, not only a mega bitch, but the school’s #1 mega bitch. In order to save her mother in the future, Jamie must find a way to stop the killer back in the past so they never have a chance to make it to 2023. That involves getting close to her mother and her three friends known as “the Mollys” (due to their obsession with The Breakfast Club’s Molly Ringwald) and trying to get the group of airheads to take her seriously. Luckily, Amelia’s teen mother Lauren (Troy L. Johnson) knows plenty about time travel herself, and has her head screwed on straight, so makes a decent companion for Jamie on her mission.


First of all, it’s time to tackle the elephant in the room: unless you have been living under a rock your entire life you will be thinking to yourself ‘hmm this sounds a hell of a lot like Halloween meets Back to the Future, and you would be right. In fact, the film holds its hands up and straight-up admits this fact. This is a world where Back to the Future definitely does exist, and by taking place in 1987 (2 years after the film’s release), the characters are able to reference the film in both the past and present. This is more than just a nostalgic nod, and helps the early pacing of Totally Killer a great deal, meaning that most of the expositional sci-fi mumbo jumbo can be skipped through nice and quickly, as most of the characters are at least vaguely familiar with how Back to the Future’s time travel rules work. Back to the Future isn’t Totally Killer’s only inspiration, and it also makes note of its references to Halloween, Scream, and most amusingly Heathers, throughout its course.

I was very excited when I first saw the cast & crew for this film: yes, I love Kiernan Shipka from Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and yes, Olivia Holt was amazing in Cruel Summer, but more importantly, this film is directed by none other than Nahnatchka Khan. This is only her second film, but she has plenty of experience in the TV world, and I am a massive fan especially of Don’t Trust the B**** in Apartment 23 (and apparently the only person in the world who actually remembers it) which she wrote, produced, and directed. Don’t Trust the B**** in Apartment 23 is a wickedly wacky feminist-centric odd-couple comedy, and the snappy rapport that worked so well in that series cuts through Totally Killer brilliantly. Not only is Jamie out of place in the 1980s, she is also out of place in how to deal with her teenage mother, who is quite simply, awful. 


Kiernan Shipka showed in Chilling Adventures of Sabrina what a charismatic lead she could make (and arguably carried the show through its later couple of seasons), and is perfectly cast as Jamie. She plays a great straight man through the comedy and sets up each joke perfectly, carrying the audience along with her, whilst also making sure the more serious stakes never get lost behind the laughs. Olivia Holt is also a standout here, and along with Cruel Summer, it seems that the 26-year-old actress has the uncanny ability to easily play any character who is 10 years younger than herself. She doesn’t just look the part of the ultimate preppy 80s teen, she also believably feels like she is from 1987 – certainly a feat much harder than it looks. She could slide straight into the cast of Heathers and no one would ever bat an eyelid. Actually, that’s maybe unfair; the Mollys are absolutely brilliant in their own right and I’d honestly so watch a spinoff show based purely around them. They don’t merely cosplay as Molly Ringwald in The Breakfast Club; every day they turn up to school in a totally different Molly Ringwald outfit – how fabulously pathetic is that?

With a premise as ridiculous as a photo booth time machine, Totally Killer is understandably a comedy, and I am pleased to say that it is incredibly funny, and at times, absolutely hilarious. Jamie is a very 2020s teen, and being thrust into the non-PC world of the 80s is certainly an eye-opener for her. The open sexism (when’s the last time you saw an “FBI: Female Body Inspector” t-shirt?), casual body shaming, lack of personal boundaries, and a total disregard for security compared to her post-9/11 world, are almost too much for her brain to comprehend. Jamie suffers a full-on culture shock but isn’t one to take things lying down. She attempts to call out this problematic behaviour whenever she sees it, though is constantly met with vacant gazes. It doesn’t take long for her to other herself and is quickly seen as just another one of the freaks – not very useful when she needs to befriend the most popular girls in school to stop them from getting carved up.


A particularly funny scene comes after a random woman offers Jamie a lift to the school. At first, Jamie finds it absurd that a stranger would expect her to accept lift – what if she were a molester, or even worse, the very serial killer that she’s hunting? After eventually relenting, she arrives at the school in a car filled to the brim with cigarette smoke. She stumbles from the car, coughing her guts up, and the camera casually pans back to the woman’s two young children sitting in the backseat. The 80s were indeed a very different time. It would be easy for the comedy to come off either as preachy with the progressive modern teen singlehandedly correcting the intolerant behaviour of the 20th century, or conversely, as a criticism along the lines of ‘those darn woke teens nowadays’. Fortunately, it rests somewhere in the middle – sometimes Jamie is justified, and sometimes she just needs to get over herself. It is fun to see how both she and her teenage mother Pam learn little lessons from each other.

Admittedly, the comedy has little variety and almost entirely relies on Jamie openly stating how backward things in the 80s are, which starts to become a little stale by the second half. Totally Killer has more to it than just being a one-note culture clash comedy, and when the jokes show signs of slowing down, the horror quickly takes over. Whilst Totally Killer is unlikely to satisfy the slasher gore-fiends among you, it is still surprisingly visceral in its violence. The Sweet 16 Killer isn’t just a one-and-done throat slitter, nor are the victims lame sitting ducks. Everyone puts up a believable fight for their life which results in some brutal scenes and some very satisfying instances of the killer getting the shit kicked out of them. One especially flinchingly nasty scene sees a girl thrown from a mezzanine floor to land flat on her back on the staircase below. It is certainly a stark contrast to the preceding comedy elements, but the film eases us in gently in each case so the tonal shift doesn’t feel too out of place. 


Tying Totally Killer together nicely is the superb tension that runs throughout the entire film. Understandably, Jamie brings with her knowledge of the future – most importantly which girl is going to get killed, when she is going to get killed, and also where she is going to get killed. However, it quickly becomes very clear that Jamie’s mere presence in the past affects how the events will pan out, and it is not long before Jamie realises that coming from the future might not carry with it the advantages that she initially thought it would. With plenty of twists along the way, there is a very real level of peril which continues to ramp up before the finale. 

Despite primarily being a comedy, Totally Killer has just enough horror to satisfy slasher fans, whilst also taking itself seriously enough that it never descends into spoof territory. It’s been a long time since Halloween first showed up, and since then almost every fresh idea has been tried in the slasher genre. A cynic might assume that the decision was made to just throw Back to the Future into the mix to see what would happen, but I think Totally Killer is far more than a sum of its parts.

Nahnatchka Khan’s feminist stylings are stamped all over the film, and I feel it’s been too long since I’ve seen such a wide range of believable and diverse female characters in a horror film (I want to say maybe The Craft from all the way back in 1996). Even though the plot feels fairly simple, Totally Killer manages to constantly subvert audience expectations and delivers an especially inspired epilogue. Totally Killer ultimately feels like a return to more the carefree films of the 80s like Night of the Creeps and Fright Night – just a genuinely fun little film that seeks above all to entertain.


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