“Totally Killer is a low-budget, endearingly goofy horror comedy.”
- The film's witty, observant screenplay
- Complementary, note-perfect lead performances
- The movie's shockingly mean-spirited horror streak
- The film's occasionally cheap, made-for-TV look
- A third-act climax that isn't as satisfying as it could be
The new Amazon Prime original movie Totally Killer doesn’t have particularly high aspirations. It’s a film that’s interested in little more than entertaining you for 105 minutes, and whether it’s because of or in spite of the low expectations that its story and cheaper-than-anyone-would-like aesthetic inspire, it does exactly that. Like a few other horror movies that haven’t gotten the rollout they’ve deserved this year, the film feels guaranteed to become a cult favorite in the coming months and years. There are worse fates, especially for a movie as high-spirited and charming as Totally Killer, but it’s also impossible not to wonder what it might have been had it been given just a bit more financial and commercial support.
Fortunately, the film manages to rise above its budgetary constraints with its multitude of genuinely funny, laugh-out-loud lines and sight gags, as well as the perfectly pitched performances of its cast. A time travel thriller about a young girl who tries to save her mom’s high school self from a notorious murderer, Totally Killer wears its influences on its sleeve, but is more than just a pastiche of its 1980s horror and sci-fi predecessors. There’s a real artistic personality on display throughout the film that suits its delightfully B-movie energy and winningly campy tone.
Set in the small town of North Vernon, Totally Killer follows Jamie (Kiernan Shipka), a typically rebellious high school girl desperate to spend Halloween night away from her overbearing, overprotective mother, Pam (Julie Bowen). As the film’s tongue-in-cheek, opening true crime podcast segment reveals, North Vernon was terrorized decades prior by a masked murderer known as the “Sweet 16 Killer,” who murdered three of Pam’s fellow female classmates. While Jamie believes that her town’s darkest days are behind it, it isn’t long before North Vernon’s past has come back to haunt her, her family, and the rest of its citizens.
When Jamie finds herself on the receiving end of a late-night attack from the potentially resurfaced Sweet 16 Killer, she ends up traveling back in time in the photo booth that was only recently converted into a time machine by her brilliant best friend, Amelia (Kelcey Mawema). Stranded in 1987, Jamie resolves to use her knowledge of the future to try and stop the Sweet 16 Killer’s infamous murders. In doing so, she brings herself face-to-face with a younger version of her own mother (played by frequent scene-stealer Olivia Holt). What follows is an unapologetically absurd, shockingly brutal time-travel adventure.
Along the way, Totally Killer takes advantage of nearly every opportunity it can to either pack in an over-the-top murder or a well-timed joke about the generational divide between Jamie and the teenage version of her mom. In particular, the film mines as much comedy as it can out of Jamie’s increasing horror over the relaxed safety standards of the 1980s and the offensive behavior of Pam and her friends. These jokes, although obvious at times, work far more often than they should, and that’s thanks not only to the wittiness of Totally Killer’s script, penned by David Matalon, Sasha Perl-Raver, and Jen D’Angelo, but also the expressiveness of Shipka’s mostly reactionary lead performance.
Behind the camera, Always Be My Maybe director Nahnatchka Khan brings a snappy, constantly on the move energy to Totally Killer that allows for the screwball pace of its script to fully shine through. Jeremy Cohen’s editing, meanwhile, makes space for several deadpan reverse cuts that not only add some variety to the film’s otherwise unrelenting rhythm, but only make its best sight gags hit that much harder. Together, Khan, Cohen, and the rest of their collaborators have made a horror comedy that feels visually and tonally cohesive. There’s never a sense throughout the film that anyone involved in it was on a different page from everyone else.
That fact helps one to see past Totally Killer’s undeniably cheap look and Judd Overton’s bland, made-for-TV-esque cinematography. At times, Khan does manage to turn Totally Killer’s clear financial limitations into a feature rather than a bug — namely, in the moments when Jamie’s trips through time are visualized with a series of dissolves and special effects that disorient the space around Shipka even as she remains in place. The sequences have such a lovely retro quality to them that they call to mind, if only briefly, 20th-century sci-fi movie classics like The Time Machine. Mostly, though, Totally Killer’s disappointing aesthetic prevents it from working on as many levels as it might have otherwise.
Its visual shortcomings aside, Totally Killer is an astonishingly easy movie to spend an hour and 45 minutes with. Its rapid pace, well-observed jokes, and collection of memorable comedic performances combine together to make a horror comedy that delivers everything it should. That is to say that the film is exactly what those who would be interested in it in the first place are looking for. Even if it’s far from the best horror movie of the year, Totally Killer skillfully earns its place as one of the better additions to the existing canon of October sleepover movies that’s come along in recent memory.
Totally Killer is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.
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