Totally Killer (2023)

Slash to the future

In my review of Freaky, I pitched some more high-concept slashers that Jason Landon could tackle now that he’s done a Groundhog Day slasher, a multiverse slasher, and a body swap slasher. One of my suggestions was a Back to the Future slasher in which the final girl goes back in time to stop a murder spree, only to get sucked into the danger herself. They pulled in a different director than Landon, but I expect Amazon to send me my first royalty check any day now.

It is a tribute to how much fun the premise is that I still like Totally Killer despite having a lot of problems with its implementation. The film’s biggest issue is that it takes an annoying route to the comedy: The writing of both the 2020s teens and 1980s teens presents exaggerated versions of both generations, written by a team of three writers who were all teenagers in the ‘90s and ‘00s (i.e. outsiders to both spoofed decades). The central, frequently-repeated joke is how much of a wild west the ‘80s were for privacy issues, substance abuse, and social politics, and also how uptight the ‘20s kids are about these: protagonist Jamie (Kiernan Shipka), who travels from 2022 back to 1987, is aghast at the racist school mascots, casual cocaine use, and everyone’s willingness to share personal information without hesitation. She frequently tries to teach bodily consent and feminism to the mid-’80s teens, including her mom (Olivia Holt). I laughed plenty of times, but it runs thin.

The narrative has its share of quirks, too: The film flashes back and forth from the past and the present, which feels like a violation of the premise, but maybe I’m too attached to Back to the Future. It at least lets us witness the downstream impacts of changes wrought by Jamie in the past, though, with some snippets of a reworked 2022.

Maybe it’s just because I’ve been binging slasher movies, but none of these kills are particularly inventive or memorable, though they still pack a visceral punch: The “sweet 16 killer” has a gimmick of stabbing each victim 16 times, and Totally Killer doesn’t skimp on the brutality of those stabs. It earns its R rating.

Much of my affection comes from the fact that the film goes out on a high note. The climax is a damn excellent set piece, a hall-of-mirrors and tilt-a-whirl chase that makes great use of the setting and flavor. It’s the only time the film takes patience to build real suspense.

This film isn’t exactly a revelation for those of us who have seen Shipka in the past, but that’s only because she’s been consistently excellent, as she is here: Very funny and charismatic, with no issues whatsoever carrying the film. Holt, meanwhile, does bring something new, though maybe I think that because the only other film I’ve seen her in is the legendarily stupid Status Update. She has some great line deliveries and chemistry with the rest of the cast, including Shipka. (Totally Killer gets to enjoy both queer and incest undercurrents.)

The film looks better-than-average for a streaming film, but still has a glossy, overlit texture. It’s a bit disappointing, because if there’s ever been a film begging for a vintage, grainy 35mm look, it’s Totally Killer, which homages both gritty classic slashers like Halloween and Friday the 13th and ‘80s teen comedies like Sixteen Candles. If Jamie is subsumed in 1987, it really should look more like the films from that era.

But even with the hiccups and coulda-beens, Totally Killer is an easy breezy film to watch. It’s heavier on the comedy than the slashing, and not a world-class example of either, but packed in such an enjoyable structure that it gets by. Please keep making gimmicky, high-concept slasher-comedies, Hollywood. I’ll keep watching.

Is It Good?

Good (5/8)

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5 replies on “Totally Killer (2023)”

M Dear Reviewer, we definitely see eye-to-eye on this one (It does belong in the ‘Good, but not Great’ column), though I actually enjoyed the little flash-forwards (As proof that Actions have Consequences and as set-up for the final act).

I will, however, refuse to accept that there is even the slightest hint of the genuinely incestuous because there’s Horror and then there’s just CREEPY.

It just struck me – could a stronger soundtrack have helped add some much-needed oomph?

That I can’t really remember anything about the musical score or any juicy ‘needle drops’ strongly suggests this to be the case.

It’s funny you mention that. I almost added a paragraph about how I couldn’t remember a single ’80s needle drop even though I’m sure there are some in here. I think you’re right: they could have been used with a little more punch.

After a little thought, it also occurred to me that the film might have used the flash-forwards to help show not only the consequences of our protagonist’s actions, but the horrific impact of these killings: a Horror Comedy with more of an eye to horror might have done something with showing a character introduced happy and smiling in the present day suddenly hollowed out with grief after their younger self is dragged into the murders in a way they were not in the original timeline.

There’s a little of that with Mr Rock and Roll, but it’s mostly played for comedy when the film could have conjured up some useful pathos.

> I will, however, refuse to accept that there is even the slightest hint of the genuinely incestuous because there’s Horror and then there’s just CREEPY.

Haha. Maybe I’m still too caught on BttF where it’s very much intentional.

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