The Movie Waffler New Release Review - TOTALLY KILLER | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - TOTALLY KILLER

Totally Killer review
A teen accidentally travels back 35 years to a time when her town is being menaced by a killer.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Nahnatchka Khan

Starring: Kiernan Shipka, Olivia Holt, Julie Bowen, Randall Park, Charlie Gillespie, Lochlyn Munro, Troy L. Johnson, Liana Liberato

Totally Killer poster

If you're aware of the premise of director Nahnatchka Khan's Totally Killer you'll be forgiven for thinking it's the latest horror comedy from Christopher Landon. With Happy Death Day and Freaky, Landon took the high concept comedy plots of Groundhog Day and Freaky Friday and gave them a slasher twist. Totally Killer does essentially the same thing with Back to the Future. While it's not as sharp as Landon's films, it's an entertaining romp that suggests this is a format with legs (at time of writing a similar spin on It's a Wonderful Life, titled It's a Wonderful Knife, has just released its trailer).

Totally Killer review

All of these films feature young blonde female protagonists for some reason, perhaps as a counterpoint to the classic blonde bimbo stereotype proffered by so many slasher movies. Here it's Kiernan Shipka who plays the heroine, 16-year-old Jamie Hughes, who lives in a small town with a gruesome past. In 1987 a killer wearing a Max Headroom mask killed three high school girls, and managed to avoid being caught. In 2023 the killer makes a surprise return, butchering Jamie's mom, Pam (Julie Bowen). It seems the killer is also after Jamie, and when they strike Jamie hides in a time machine made by her nerdy friend Amelia (Kelcey Mawema). Lo and behold, the time machine actually works, accidentally sending Jamie back to 1987, on the day that the first murder is set to occur.

What follows is a fun culture clash comedy as Gen Z Jamie clashes with the mores and attitudes of Gen X. In what might be the most inspired piece of casting since Michael Cimino's pairing of Mimi Rogers and Shawnee Smith as mother and daughter in Desperate Hours, Olivia Holt is cast as the 16-year-old Pam. Holt bears an uncanny similarity to Bowen and also nails the older actress's mannerisms. Much of the comedy stems from Jamie's disgust at discovering her mom was the leader of a Mean Girls-esque clique known as "The Mollys" for their love of Molly Ringwald. She also meets her dad (Charlie Gillespie), the school's head jock. Knowing her parents didn't hook up until they were in their thirties, Jamie has to contend with keeping them separated, lest history change and she disappear from existence. A lot of the fun comes from watching Jamie cringe as she's forced to spend time with kids her own age who act in the embarrassing manner of her parents. Every time Jamie meets the teenage version of an adult from 2023 the film flashes an image of their adult self, and as someone who is terrible at keeping track of character names, I can't tell you how much I appreciated this touch.

Totally Killer review

While Jamie is attempting to foil the killer in 1987, we're also given glimpses of how her actions have changed details in 2023, like a local Heavy Metal singer now becoming a sensitive singer/songwriter. The movie finds clever ways for Jamie to communicate with Amelia - whose equally nerdy mother (Troy Leigh-Anne Johnson) is building her own time machine in 1987 - by leaving messages that will pop up in the famous crime scene photos.

Khan and her screenwriters (David Matalon, Sasha Perl-Raver and Jen D'Angelo) resist the temptation to roll out the usual '80s member berries. The usual signifiers of the era are replaced by surprisingly specific references that may jog long dormant memories in those of us old enough to remember the decade (a reference to my favourite childhood video game, Death Wish III, had me chuckling with joy), and the soundtrack mostly favours deeper cuts like Shannon's 'Let the Music Play' scoring one attack by the killer.

Totally Killer review

The film balances nostalgia for the era with a reminder that it was a cruel time to be the sort of person who didn't fit in. There are certainly moments that bathe in how much more colourful a time it was (when Jamie first exits the time machine in 1987 it echoes Dorothy leaving her monochrome world for the technicolor of Oz), but we're also reminded of how bullying and torment was the norm for so many kids growing up at the time (as an immigrant to the US from Iran, I suspect Khan endured a rough time herself). Many of the slashers of the '80s acknowledged this, with killers seeking revenge for some awful act committed by a group of jocks and bimbos. The film has fun with The Mollys, but at the same time we're left in no doubt that they're awful people who may not deserve to be butchered but who aren't entirely innocent themselves.

While Totally Killer is successful as a comedy, the slasher element is left lacking and often feels like an afterthought. The attacks and kills aren't particularly well-staged, and locations like a cabin in the woods and a fairground house of horrors are never used as effectively as they might be. In that respect Totally Killer is a poor cousin of Landon's similar films, but as a comedy it's a winner thanks largely to the talents of a young cast, all of whom are too young to remember the '80s yet nail the vibe regardless.

Totally Killer is on Prime Video from October 6th.

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