‘Totally Killer’ review: Kiernan Shipka’s horror comedy is a totally good time

Mix Back to the Future‘s parent-centric time travel with Scream‘s self-aware slasher sensibilities, and you get Totally Killer.

The new film from Blumhouse Television and director Nahnatchka Khan (Always Be My Maybe) borrows heavily from both iconic franchises in its tale of a time-traveling serial killer, although it coats these familiar plot points in the sheen of modern-day teen movies to set itself apart. The result is a fun, frothy horror comedy that examines the culture clash between the teens of the ’80s and the teens of today (with lots and lots of blood).

What’s Totally Killer about?

Kiernan Shipka and Olivia Holt in “Totally Killer.”
Credit: Courtesy of Prime

Totally Killer kicks off with a killing spree, courtesy of the notorious Sweet 16 Killer. Around Halloween of 1987, this masked murderer slaughtered three 16-year-old girls in the small town of Vernon. The killer never attacked again, nor were they ever caught. However, 35 years later, their macabre legacy lives. A tawdry true crime podcast and Vernon murder tour keep the memory of the murders alive, while every year around Halloween, the victims’ friends mourn their loss.

One of these friends is Pam (Julie Bowen), whose 17-year-old daughter Jamie (Kiernan Shipka) rolls her eyes at her mother’s Halloween-time warnings. “It’s not 1987 anymore,” she scoffs. After all, her parents can track her phone, and she’s armed with everything from pepper spray to a rape whistle. What could go wrong?

Turns out, quite a bit. The Sweet 16 Killer resurfaces to claim a fourth victim — and Jamie’s next on their list. While fleeing Vernon’s resident slasher, Jamie accidentally winds up in 1987 thanks to her best friend Amelia’s (Kelcey Mawema) time-travel machine. (It’s Amelia’s science fair project — baking soda volcanos tremble before her!) Finding herself just days away from the Sweet 16 Killer’s original murders, Jamie sets off on a quest to prevent them from happening in the first place, teaming up with her teenage mom (Olivia Holt) as she goes.

Totally Killer pokes fun at everything from generational differences to time-travel tropes.

A group of young women in gym clothes and '80s hairdos in a high school gym.

Anna Diaz, Olivia Holt, Liana Liberato, Stephi Chin-Salvo, and Kiernan Shipka in “Totally Killer.”
Credit: James Dittiger / Prime Video

As Jamie’s 1987 adventures get underway, Totally Killer leans far more on comedy than it does on horror — especially when it comes to Jamie’s culture shock. Sure, she has three murders to stop, but she also has time to critique the problematic aspects of ’80s culture. Everything from racist school mascots to questionable shirts provokes a horrified comment, and although the “Gen X vs. Gen Z” bit could risk getting stale, Shipka’s reactions are enough to sell it every time. Her indignant cry of “Unwanted touch!” as she’s thrown out of a party is peak teen movie.

Teen movie references run rampant in Totally Killer, with the film drawing from the Plastics and the Heathers to create its own clique of mean girls: The Mollies, aka the future murder victims. Pam is their ringleader, a nightmare in shoulder pads who bluntly tells Jamie to “fuck off and die” when they first meet. However, Jamie’s persistent warnings about the Sweet 16 Killer bring her closer to Pam, leading to some genuinely poignant scenes where Jamie gets an inside look at her mother’s own adolescence.

However, not everyone is as receptive to Jamie’s warnings as Pam — especially not the cops. (It doesn’t help that Jamie straight-up tells them she’s a time traveler.) Without much of a support system beyond Pam and Amelia’s teenage mother Lauren (Troy Leigh-Anne Johnson), Jamie has to resort to some creative solutions, including the particularly fun twist of using the Sweet 16 Killer podcast to recall details about the murders.

If any of the time-travel logistics don’t make sense to you, Totally Killer agrees. “I hate time-travel movies,” one Vernon police officer (Randall Park) says. “They never make any sense.” The meta self-deprecation reads as an underwhelming cop-out, especially as the film’s timey-wimey chaos unravels somewhat in the third act. But Totally Killer finds enough humor in the ridiculousness of time travel — including a subplot where Jamie has to stop her “too-horny” teen parents from hooking up — to make up for it.

Totally Killer makes for a great starter slasher.

A masked man chases a screaming young woman on a carnival ride.

Olivia Holt in “Totally Killer.”
Credit: Courtesy of Prime

While Totally Killer is a horror film, its horror elements and slasher mystery are somewhat underwhelming compared to other entries in the genre. If you’re a diehard horror fanatic, you may be disappointed by the familiar beats, or the lack of brutal or extra-creative kills, even as the time-travel elements add a somewhat fresh spin.

However, if you’re a horror novice looking to get into slasher flicks, Totally Killer is a perfect introduction. It keeps things light enough to ease you into horror while still providing its fair share of scares. Homages to classic slashers abound, too: The Sweet 16 Killer’s mask is reminiscent of Halloween‘s Michael Myers’ iconic look, while a murder early on would be right at home as a Scream opening. Khan employs several tried and true techniques to situate us firmly in slasher territory as well, including POV shots that stalk characters when they think they’re alone.

Even though Totally Killer takes inspiration from classic slashers, its combination of high school comedy and zany time travel makes it feel somewhat like what would happen if we got — and I mean this as a compliment! — an R-rated Disney Channel Original Movie. Totally Killer has more in common with a DCOM than you might think: silly concepts, high school hierarchies, corny special effects, and a genius best friend who can casually produce game-changing technology. Holt is even a DCOM veteran herself!

But more than that, Totally Killer captures the pure delight of watching a DCOM, albeit for older audiences. This is the kind of movie you want to gather your friends to see all crammed into one living room, snacks in hand, ready to scream and laugh and cringe at the high school of it all. It might not be perfect, but when it comes to sheer fun, Totally Killer does, in fact, totally kill.

Totally Killer was reviewed out of its World Premiere at 2023’s Fantastic Fest. It hits Prime Video Oct. 6.

Amazon Prime Video


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