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“Totally Killer” or Totally Filler?

While “Totally Killer” offers some enjoyable moments and ’80s nostalgia, the film’s uneven tone, cringe-worthy gags, and shallow character development make for a somewhat disappointing and disorienting Halloween-themed ride.
Totally Killer Movie Poster

With absolutely no plans for this Halloweekend, I decided to treat myself to a movie night. Cocooned in a blanket and armed with a bowl of peanut M&M’s and popcorn, I opened up Prime Video and scrolled before finding what I thought would be the perfect movie – “Totally Killer,” directed by Nahnatchka Khan and starring Kiernan Shipka. 

The film was advertised as a thrilling rollercoaster ride of ’80s nostalgia, time travel, horror and humor. As a die-hard fan of slasher films and a lifelong lover of Marty McFly, it had all the ingredients I craved for a thrilling movie night. I needed to check it out. 

However, as the credits eventually rolled, I found myself with an empty popcorn bowl, aching, chocolate-covered teeth, and feeling largely let down. 

‘Totally Killer’ should be renamed ‘Totally Filler’; while it has a promising plot and a cast of talented actors, the production lacked depth and failed to sell the premise. The film fell short of my expectations, as it doesn’t fully embrace the slasher genre or the concept of time travel, and all of the plotlines felt borrowed from the ’80s rather than organic or cleverly subverted by the film. 

It comes across as pantomime—coherent but insincere, entirely reliant on ideas from a previous generation and simultaneously failing to measure up.

The story unfolds in North Vernon, a small town haunted by a dark past. In 1987, three teenage girls were brutally murdered by the Sweet Sixteen Killer. Their deaths remain unsolved, and the killer’s mask has become iconic and replicated by townspeople as a Halloween costume. 

Thirty-five years later, the town gained notoriety through a podcast about the killings by local journalist Chris Dubasage. Jamie (Kiernan Shipka), living with her overprotective mother Pam (Julie Bowen) and her less paranoid father Blake, faces tragedy when a masked man resembling the killer strikes. Jamie’s determination to solve the case leads her to Sheriff Kara and Chris, who reveal Pam’s history with the killer. 

Alongside the serial killer plot, a sci-fi subplot involving a time-traveling machine takes shape. Jamie’s friend Lauren works on this project, and during a confrontation with the killer, the machine unexpectedly activates, sending Jamie back in time to meet her high school-aged mother. 

Trapped in the 1980s, Jamie finds herself in a situation where she has to pose as a high school student and persuade the doubtful townspeople and the bumbling sheriff about the imminent threat. All the while, she’s grappling with the cultural differences of the 1980s and attempting to forge a connection with her teenage mother. 

As previously mentioned, the film blends ’80s nostalgia, time travel, horror and humor, all elements I adore and are the bones for a fantastic and darkly funny, interesting movie. The movie also shares similarities with other films in the time travel and horror-comedy genre, such as “The Final Girls” and “Happy Death Day,” though it leans more into fast-paced science fiction and humor, films which I thoroughly enjoyed. 

However, it was clear that the filmmakers bit off more than they could chew. Unfortunately, by trying to juggle so many subplots and genres, the movie dropped the ball in most aspects, resulting in a disappointing and discombobulated film. 

On the bright side, the fashion department definitely committed to providing a John Cusack film-esque aesthetic to the movie. I loved the costuming of the teenagers for the 80s, full of acid-wash jeans, neon colors, puffy sleeves, and big hair really transported me back to that era. 

I also enjoyed the movie’s dedication to the ’80s stereotypes it portrays. Pam, Jamie’s mother, is in a ‘Mean Girls’ type group called The Mollys (because they worship ‘80s icon Molly Ringwald), and there are witty jabs at the music, the clothes and the cocaine. The cast of side characters was composed of cartoonishly-rude jocks and lovable nerd misfits, and the actors pulled off the roles in a humorous and semi-realistic manner. 

What really shines in the movie, though, is the dynamic between Jamie and her teenage mother. Their interactions deliver the most emotionally gripping scenes, and their acting truly excels during those moments. 

Furthermore, I thoroughly enjoyed the exploration of the stark differences in social norms and generational personalities between the ’80s and 2023. Take, for instance, the lax security at the high school, which allowed Jamie to easily pass as an exchange student from Canada, something that would never fly today.

There was also a scene where Jamie got absolutely slaughtered in a gym-class dodgeball match, a game that is probably outlawed in gym classes now (at least, I have never had the distinct displeasure of playing it in school) and watching her dive for cover made me laugh out loud.  

It was equally entertaining and amusing to witness Jamie’s shock at the insensitivity and lack of political correctness in that era. She spends a lot of time cautioning people about behaviors and attitudes that were perfectly acceptable in the 1980s but now appear socially outrageous, which felt highly relatable and hilarious.  

But overall, for the movie being over two hours long, it felt rushed and hollow. The scenes drag on, and jokes overstay their welcome, filling up time that could have been better utilized to develop their characters. The time travel subplot felt poorly thought out and vague, which was really disappointing as that was one of the parts I was most looking forward to.

I felt like I barely knew the characters, which made it hard to root for them, especially as the ‘80s teens were written to seem pretty unlikable and unsympathetic, including Jamie’s mother.

There were also aspects that made me feel genuinely uncomfortable. For example, one aspect where the film goes all out is the unnecessary amount of gore. Those stabbings are so visceral and intense that they left my stomach churning. The film is also strangely preoccupied with sexual jokes and running bits about their teenage characters (I think the word blowjob was used at least 5 times), which at times felt grossly over-explicit regarding the film’s underage characters. 

The tone also felt strangely condemning towards characters that were gruesomely murdered, encouraging you to sympathize with the killer and blame the girls for their tragedy. The narratively-justified murder of ‘naughty girls’ may be a hallmark of 80s slasher films— and one I will reluctantly excuse when watching those iconic films— but from a modern film that is more aware of the tropes and misogynistic pitfalls of the genre, I would expect to see this trope subverted if utilized as a plot device. As it stands, the victim-blaming plotline felt unoriginal and tedious, full of wasted potential and ignorant in the narrative’s lazy adherence to outdated tropes.

The ending, while it has some surprising and intriguing elements that I enjoyed, also felt rushed and left multiple questions hanging in the air. It’s as if the filmmakers were struggling to balance their love for ’80s nostalgia with the demands of the plot, resulting in a disjointed viewing experience. 

But truly, where the film stumbles most is with its inconsistent tone. ‘Totally Killer’ tries to wear too many masks, much like its Sweet Sixteen Killer. It shifts between being a thriller and a comedy, which often leaves you feeling like you’re riding a horror-themed tilt-a-whirl – fun at times, but also disorienting. 

It switches from gruesome gore, the kind that makes your stomach do somersaults, to treating serial murder as a running joke. You’d think witnessing someone getting stabbed 16 times (the murderous signature of the killer) would be a big deal, but not in this movie. The characters treat the murder of their friends almost casually by barely mourning them and moving on quickly. The lack of emotional reactions from the victims’ “best friends” makes me wonder if these characters were friends or just co-stars reading lines. It’s almost as if the film doesn’t take its own horror seriously, which further contributes to the tonal inconsistencies.

Overall, while “Totally Killer” has its enjoyable moments, which justifies giving it a 2.5-star rating, the film left me largely disappointed. While it has funny moments and entertaining scenes, it grapples with tonal inconsistencies, cringe-worthy gags, and a lack of depth in all of its characters. If you’re in the mood for a relatively light-hearted Halloween-themed movie with a touch of ’80s nostalgia, it might be worth a shot. Just be prepared for a bumpy, disorienting and ultimately unfulfilling ride along the way.

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