Whilst it commits to the kill from an on-screen carnage perspective, Nahnatchka Kahn‘s Totally Killer has a bit more of a Disney Channel Original vibe going for it in terms of its heart and structure; and that’s in no way meant as a diss against what’s ultimately a very digestible, oft witty slasher.
In 2023, Jamie Hughes (Kiernan Shipka) is a pretty typical teen with a mother (Julie Bowen‘s Pam) who she wishes would just chill out. But Pam, you see, isn’t a regular mom. She’s not a Mean Girls-esque “cool mom” (though, as Jamie finds out, she was the quintessential mean girl in high school), but she did survive the wrath of a serial killer back in the 1980s, so she’s justified in her helicopter parenting ways.
As a teen, Pam narrowly escaped the masked maniac (aren’t they all?) dubbed The Sweet 16 Killer with her life, but lost her trio of besties along the way, and now he (or she) has come to finish the job some 36 years on. And finishing off Pam also means going after poor Jamie, but thanks to a convenient plot device she’s going back to the scene of the crime in an attempt to stop the killing spree before it begins. Yes, Jamie time travels to 1987, meets her teenaged mother (Olivia Holt) and the would-be victims, and hopes she doesn’t “butterfly effect” proceedings too much that she alters her own future in the process.
Clearly not wanting to get overly bogged down with the science of it all, screenwriters David Matalon (The Clearing), Sasha Perl-Raver (Let’s Get Married) and Jen D’Angelo (Hocus Pocus 2) lightly pepper in the notion that time travel movies don’t always makes sense and they humorously reference Back To The Future to drive home the fact that even they are aware that the movie is a far more enjoyable experience if you don’t think too much about what’s unfolding. And whilst that is indeed true, the trio manage to not always fall solely on pop culture references to make Totally Killer feel amusing.
It’s the fact that 1987 – where the film places Jamie – feels like 1987. The fashion and surroundings aren’t overly exaggerated in the manner we come to expect from 80’s set films and, apart from some Molly Ringwald references, the comedy from being in a different period derives from the fact that technology and general security existed in a much more relaxed atmosphere; Jamie notes at how uncomfortably simple it is to garner information about a person she doesn’t know and how easy it must be to walk through an airport.
As is the case with any time travel film, the smallest misstep outside of this movie’s “history” means events can unfold in an unpredictable manner, and there’s plenty of fun to be had in Jamie solving the mystery of who’s attempting to murder her mother and her friends. Jamie thinks she has the sequential order down to a science, but in trying to warn the victims she risks changing both the order in which they die and how they are individually slaughtered. It manages to keep the film from becoming entirely predictable, setting up some amusing pay-off sequences for when Jamie returns to her potentially altered timeline.
Though its premise is amusing, it’s not exactly reinventing the wheel, with the similarly themed Happy Death Day (2017) and the vastly underrated The Final Girls (2015) utilising the time-travel-cum-slasher concept with more originality. That being said, Totally Killer manages to manoeuvre any familiarity or missed genre opportunities with its committed performances and a surprising sweetness; just don’t think too hard about it all, or you’ll totally kill your psyche – and Kahn’s killer concept comedy is not worth the headache.
THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Totally Killer is streaming on Prime Video from Friday, October 6th, 2023.