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The easiest way to describe Totally Killer is by listing all the other movies it calls to mind. Plot-wise, it’s a Back to the Future-style time travel adventure crossed with a Halloween-inspired slasher, all cast in a Scream-lite sense of self-awareness; tonally, its mashup of comedy and horror lands in the same general area as The Final Girls or the Happy Death Day movies.
If it its ingredients feel familiar, however, the script (by David Matalon, Sasha Perl-Raver and Jen D’Angelo) injects them with just enough heart and humor to keep them from feeling stale. Totally Killer may not be destined to become a classic in its own right. But the Amazon release is fun enough for a spooky season night in.
Release Date: Friday, Oct. 6 (Amazon)
Cast: Kiernan Shipka, Olivia Holt, Charlie Gillespie, Lochlyn Munro, Troy L. Johnson, Liana Liberato, Kelcey Mawema, Nathaniel Appiah and Jonathan Potts, Randall Park, Julie Bowen
Director: Nahnatchka Khan
Screenwriters: David Matalon, Sasha Perl-Raver, Jen D'AngeloRated R, 1 hour 43 minutes
Its unwitting Marty McFly is Jamie (Kiernan Shipka), a stereotypically rebellious teenager whose stereotypically overprotective parents (Julie Bowen and Lochlyn Munro) have more reason than most to be paranoid: 35 years ago, when they were still in high school, three of their friends were murdered in a single week. Their worst fears are realized when the still-unidentified Sweet Sixteen Killer returns to claim another victim on Halloween 2022. As he sets his sights on Jamie, she takes shelter in a time machine that hurls her back to 1987, via some endearingly chintzy graphics.
The unplanned journey inevitably sets up a clash of Gen Z and Gen X sensibilities, and Totally Killer plays out most of the expected beats. Jamie groans at the formerly racist school mascot, cringes at the overtly misogynistic language of her parents’ generation, coughs at the omnipresent clouds of cigarette smoke. There are a few clever subversions, like when Jamie unknowingly scarfs half a dozen pot brownies, only to find herself totally unaffected because “’80s weed sucks.” And the requisite Q&A about the future takes a wry ’20s turn when Jamie explains that no, the machines do not end up killing us all a la Terminator or RoboCop — “they more just rip apart the fabric of our society through dance videos on TikTok.”
None of its observations about the generational divide are really sharp enough to draw blood, however. This is neither a Gen Z satire like Bodies Bodies Bodies nor a Gen X nostalgia trip like Stranger Things. The film is more about actual blood. Though Jamie spends her stay in 1987 trying to stop the killings before they happen, largely by trying to befriend the victims so she can persuade them to make different choices, she’s more successful at changing the details of the murders than preventing them altogether. Totally Killer could probably stand to be a bit gorier, given its R rating, but its spurts of violence are paced at a brisk enough clip to keep a viewer engaged throughout its 103 minutes.
Meanwhile, its time-travel shenanigans are played with a cheerful light touch. In the present, Jamie’s tech-whiz best friend, Amelia (Kelcey Mawema), works on fixing the time machine so Jamie can come home; in the past, Amelia’s even more brilliant future mother, Lauren (Troy L. Johnson), does the same. Both are surprisingly blasé about the whole affair. “You don’t start trying to invent time travel without considering the possibility that people from the future wil need your help,” Lauren shrugs when Jamie expresses surprise at how well she’s taking all of this. As with most time travel movies, the plot mechanics work best if you don’t think about them too hard, especially toward the end. They hang together just well enough while it matters to add an extra jolt of urgency to Jamie’s timeline-altering quest.
And, sometimes, an extra tinge of poignancy. Totally Killer isn’t an especially emotional movie. To the contrary, everyone in its version of the 1980s is so unmoved even by the shocking events unfolding within it that the one time a guy weeps over his girlfriend’s death, a newscaster deems the display “fascinating.” But it locates a beating heart in the evolving bond between Jamie and Pam (Olivia Holt), her mother’s younger self. The pair aren’t exactly buddies to start. Jamie’s horrified to discover that Pam is an archetypal mean girl who thinks it “hilarious” to trick a social outcast into believing a popular boy likes her. (Carrie would have existed by this point, but maybe Pam never watched it?) For her part, Pam is understandably weirded out by the stranger barging into her friends’ lives out of nowhere, bearing bizarre warnings about impending doom.
But the adventure puts Jamie in the position of trying to protect the very same person whose protection she’ll shrug off 35 years later, and in doing so forces her to see Pam in a new light. Shipka is charming as a thoroughly modern heroine who can slip between baseball-bat-toting badassery and heart-on-sleeve sincerity — and though Pam’s response to the latter is to scoff that “nobody wants to hear you talk about how much you love your mom,” Holt shades her with just enough vulnerability that we can see the caring woman she’ll become underneath the queen-bitch teen she is currently.
Their nascent friendship makes Totally Killer easy to root for, even when its jokes don’t land as sharply as they could or its kills fail to leave a memorable impression. It also makes the film feel surprisingly wholesome, despite all the bloodletting and the horny teen hookups and the seemingly endless supply of weed and beer. It might even make you, by the end of it all, want to call your mom and tell her that you love her.
Distributor: Amazon Studios
Production companies: Blumhouse Television, Divide/Conquer, Fierce Baby Productions
Cast: Kiernan Shipka, Olivia Holt, Charlie Gillespie, Lochlyn Munro, Troy L. Johnson, Liana Liberato, Kelcey Mawema, Stephi Chin-Salvo, Anna Diaz, Ella Choi, Jeremy Monn-Djasgnar, Nathaniel Appiah and Jonathan Potts, Randall Park, Julie Bowen
Director: Nahnatchka Khan
Screenwriters: David Matalon, Sasha Perl-Raver, Jen D'Angelo
Producers: Jason Blum, Adam Hendricks, Greg Gilreath
Executive producers: Nahnatchka Khan, Chloe Yellin, Chris McCumber, Jeremy Gold, Chris Dickie, Brian Leslie Parker
Director of photography: Judd Overton
Production designer: Liz Kay
Costume designer: Patti Henderson
Editor: Jeremy Cohen
Music: Michael Andrews
Casting director: Sarah Domeier Lindo, Terri TaylorRated R, 1 hour 43 minutes
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