If the gods that program streaming video tossed Back to the Future, Peggy Sue Got Married, Halloween, Scream and Hot Tub Time Machine into a blender the algorithm would probably spit out something like Totally Killer, a slasher/comedy where the “final girl” travels back in time to 1987 to stop a serial killer, save her mom, and get back home to 2023. There’s also dashes of modern slasher/comedies like Happy Death Day and Freaky, often making it feel more like a Frankenstein of ideas rather than its own thing.
Jamie (Kiernan Shipka) is a modern teen living with her well-meaning dad Blake (Lochlyn Munro) and overprotective mom Pam (Julie Bowen). But mom is overprotective for a reason: 35 years ago Vernon suffered a horrible tragedy when three high school girls were murdered by a mask-wearing psycho serial killer on Halloween in what was dubbed the “Sweet Sixteen Killings”. The mask, which looks like the unholy hybrid of Max Headroom and Joe Biden, has become a phenomenon as the town now celebrates its worst tragedy ever Halloween with tours and even its own real-crime podcast (the Sweet Sixteen Killer Podcast).
And mom was right to be paranoid as the killer returns to violently (yet comedically) finish her off. Mourning the death of her mother, Jaime is consoled by her geeky best friend Amelia (Kelcey Mawema), who happens to be building a time machine for her class project. Which is pretty convenient when she’s also attacked by the killer, only managing to escape by time-traveling back to the wildest, most awesome decade ever: the 1980s.
Trapped in the decade of big hair and shoulder pads, Jaime’s shocked to discover her teenage mom (Olivia Holt) is a total you-know-what mean girl, part of a gaggle of other mean girls who call themselves “The Mollies” because each dresses like a different version of Molly Ringwald. She’s also shocked to discover her teenage dad (Charlie Gillespie) is a total stud.
Realizing she has a chance to stop the Sweet Sixteen Killer before he kills, she seeks out Amelia’s teenage mom Lauren (Troy Leigh-Anne Johnson), also working on a time machine (also very convenient), and worms her way into her teenage mom’s mean girl clique to change the past so she can change the future, hopefully saving her future mom in the process.
Totally Killer mostly works as a fun homage to 80s/90s slasher horror/comedies, but almost by accident. Not helping is pedestrian direction from Nahnatchka Khan (Always Be My Maybe) and Judd Overton’s paper-flat cinematography that makes both 2023 and 1987 periods look indistinguishable from one another. The screenplay (by David Matalon, Sasha Perl-Raver, Jen D’Angelo) “borrows” as many horror tropes and iconic moments from better movies as it can, but too often falls into lazy cliches and the same hyper-awareness that Kevin Williamson drove into the ground decades ago.
Honestly, the kills aren’t great and it’s a little cheesy hearing characters spouting “sex talk” like they have no idea what actual sex is. This might be the most PG-13 feeling R-rated slasher movie I’ve ever seen. It’s easy to imagine, with a little editing, this could have easily been shown on Disney+ and nothing of value would have been lost.
But the movie is still fun, despite itself, especially when Jaime tries explaining that she’s basically living in a “Back to the Future” scenario. After finding herself in 1987 she comments on things being “problematic” and signs at her high school’s older “racist” mascot. The film even gets pretty clever when we see events play out between both eras, past and present, and when Jaime realizes that her interference has changed the past, meaning her knowledge of the killings no longer applies and the future is no longer set. To survive, she’ll have to pay closer attention if she wants to make it back to 2023 alive.
Hilariously, it also seems that 1987 Vernon is way, way more racially inclusive and open-minded than present day Vernon, and Jaime’s comments on what’s “offensive” only serve to make the future seem totally uptight and boring, which may not have been intentional. The 1980s were more than Day-Glo pastels and awesome music (admittedly, the soundtrack is awesome), and it’s weird that 80s nostalgia seems to be based more on 80s movies than the actual decade. It sounds petty to bring this up, but it’s a shame when a period piece never fully commits to the period, or completely misunderstands it.
While the concept behind Totally Killer is cleverer than its execution (no pun intended), it’s rare to see a movie succeed when it so brazenly plagiarizes its source material without falling into parody. But the cast is having fun, the concept is fun, the soundtrack kicks, we get all the references (the movie is basically one big reference), and given the sorry state of comedies these days that makes this one better than average. It’s nowhere near the classic status of the movies its aping, but it’s a good time while it lasts.