Totally Killer is an incredibly memorable horror film with a wild narrative, cool kills, and thrilling performances from Kiernan Shipka and Olivia Holt.
It has been an awesome year for the horror genre so far in 2023 and October has plenty to offer audiences as the Fall season is now underway and Halloween is closer than ever. One film that might have flown under your radar is Totally Killer, directed by Nahnatchka Khan and starring Kiernan Shipka and Olivia Holt. If you have not heard about it, allow me to give you a little taste of the comedy horror that is coming soon to Prime Video.
In Totally Killer, a masked murderer known as the Sweet Sixteen Killer returns to a small town after committing a spree of murders there 35 years ago. After the killer strikes again, Teenager Jamie Hughes (Kiernan Shipka) accidentally time travels back to 1987. She becomes determined to stop the original string of murders before they begin, all the while trying to find a way back to the present.
It may not always break the mold, but Totally Killer is an exceptional comedy horror film. The narrative is without any exaggeration, absolutely nuts. Think Back to the Future (1985) combined with Scream (1996) with a surprising amount of heart at the center. Writers David Matalon, Sasha Perl-Raver, and Jen D’Angelo offer up a story that is fun, intense, and rushing with nostalgia. At the same time, they are not afraid to offer commentary on the 1980s or the slasher genre. Some of their satirical targets are obvious (but still worth a chuckle). While others are hilariously unexpected and memorable.
Amazon Studios, Blumhouse, and Divide/Conquer also appear to have a solid horror villain on their hands in the Sweet Sixteen Killer. This figure wrecks bloody havoc throughout behind a mask that looks similar to some sort of 80s pop star. It is a terrifying and campy look, but it truly fits the vibe of the film perfectly. These kills are incredibly violent and calculated. The level of gore is just a notch below Scream VI (2023) but not by much and honestly will likely make you as uncomfortable. Even though the silent Sweet Sixteen Killer may make you chuckle thanks to a mask that seems very era appropriate and yet goofy, Totally Killer establishes this antagonistic force as one you do not want to mess with.
There are gobs of tension and suspense littered throughout this story. This of course comes from the Sweet Sixteen Killer and the mystery of who is behind the mask. You will be kept guessing as the film moves along and this script even throws some well executed curveballs your way from time to time. Another source of tension is the time travel shenanigans that are involved in Totally Killer, as the writers play around with and establish how time travel works, there is no certainty that Jamie will be able to make it home. Things get wacky in several ways and while it may be enjoyable for the audience to watch, there is this constant lingering unease that Jamie may fail and our killer may succeed with their murderous agenda.
One real criticism I have of Totally Killer is the actual killer reveal. I saw it coming from almost the very beginning. The twist and turns kept me hooked, but the final reveal is a slight letdown. Yes, it makes sense within the narrative, but there are other characters that might have been more compelling as the big bad and that is never a feeling that you want your audience to have. This reveal and the ultimate motive kind of fall a little flat, harming the uniqueness that brims throughout the film. Other parts of the story and characters help create something quite good, but the unmasking of the Sweet Sixteen Killer keeps it from being something that one would consider iconic.
So, what saves this film? Quite a lot, actually. There are the kills and tension filled narrative, but you also have the comedy and commentary on the 1980s and slasher films. Then there is the time travel aspect, which may be a little ridiculous, but hey, so was Back to the Future (1985) if we are being honest. I love the way time travel is used in that film and in Totally Killer, neither are truly concerned with logistics, and serve up their own takes on the concept. With that time travel aspect comes a depiction of 1987 which feels realistic. You are not going to find excessive fashion choices shoved in to cash in on nostalgia. What you see outfit wise is like a recorded tape from the period. You also are not bombarded with needless 80s pop culture references. Instead, you receive what is necessary for world building.
When it comes to the cast, Kiernan Shipka and Olivia Holt are both outstanding as Jamie and the teenage version of Jamie’s mother, Pam. Shipka seals her status as a Scream Queen with a performance that has a little bit of everything. She gives Jamie heart, wit, and an edge whenever she needs too. Not many people can convincingly sell being Marty McFly in a slasher, but Shipka does, especially when she has to convince audiences she is a girl out of time. Her reactions to 1980s culture compared to 2023 are a highlight of the film. Jamie Hughes is a sparkplug and one of my new favorite horror protagonists.
Holt, as teen Pam, steps out of her comfort zone a little bit and plays a character with more of a mean streak. At the same time, she makes her version of Jamie’s Mom a lot more entertaining than the adult version, played by Julie Bowen. She gets you invested in Pam and eager to see her develop as the narrative goes along. Olivia Holt shows that she has solid final girl energy as well, even though she has been a leading lady in film and television before, it is not always easy to step into the horror realm. With her charm, quite the scream, and convincing ability to handle action, it may not be a bad idea to cast Holt in another slasher if her performance in Totally Killer is any indication.
Holt and Shipka are such a stupendous pair and their chemistry is constantly on display. This helps aid the believability of Jamie and Teen Pam’s relationship. The mother-future daughter bond helps give Totally Killer its heart and allows it to be elevated from others in the slasher genre. Teen Pam is a bit of a weird combination of Lorraine Baines McFly and George McFly, to borrow another Back to the Future comparison. She has Lorraine’s popularity, but much like George with Marty, actually gets to know and builds a relationship with her future daughter Jamie. Watching them get to know each other is a delight and it makes their overall arcs more satisfying.
Totally Killer is a lot of fun and a wonderful way to kick off the Halloween season. Kiernan Shipka and Olivia Holt are top notch leading ladies of a comedy slasher story with plenty of soul and gnarly kills.
Totally Killer will premiere globally on Prime Video on October 6, 2023.