Fantastic Fest 2023 Review: TOTALLY KILLER, '80s Slasher Meets BACK TO THE FUTURE

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
Fantastic Fest 2023 Review: TOTALLY KILLER, '80s Slasher Meets BACK TO THE FUTURE

Meeting your mother when you’re both teens can screw seriously with your head (e.g., the Back to the Future trilogy). Meeting your mom as a teen when there’s a serial killer targeting your teen mom and her circle of friends, however, can lead to an altogether different set of problems, beginning — and quite possibly ending — with saving your mother from said serial killer milliseconds before you start up your time machine and head back to the future (i.e, 2023).

That premise drives Nahnatchka Khan’s (Always Be My Maybe) latest addition to her filmography, Totally Killer, a sci-fi/slasher hybrid that leans heavily — sometimes too heavily — on two hyper-exaggerated versions of America, our current, presumably more enlightened, more "woke" one, versus the regressive, reactionary America of 1987 and its reliance on cultural, ethnic, and other related stereotypes. Seen from our superior position, living in the late 1980s, free-roaming serial killer aside, was filled with said stereotypes, ill-fitting, oversized clothes and, at least on the positive side, one pop-music banger after another (e.g., Bananarama, New Order, Echo and the Bunnymen).

Story-wise, Totally Killer focuses on a present-day teen, Jamie Hughes (Kiernan Shipka), as petulant, self-involved, and willful as apparently any teen anywhere, who’s repeatedly run afoul of her parental unit, Pam (Julie Bowen), a suffocatingly overprotective mom. Pam, though, has good reason for her behavior toward Jamie: 35 years ago, a still uncaught killer, murdered three of her classmates and friends, Tiffany Clark (Liana Liberato), Marisa Song (Stephi Chin-Salvo), and Heather Hernandez (Anna Diaz), in a spree that lasted six days before disappearing without a trace. Inarguably, the wrenching, permanent loss of her friends left a permanent mark on her psyche.

In addition to the now standard generational trauma passed down from Pam to Jamie, the so-called “Sweet Sixteen Killer” also left a whole host of unanswered questions, but for Jamie, it’s old news that’s best left in the past. For Jamie, her mother’s protestations are just another obstacle to overcome, but when the killer — the same or possibly a copycat — returns, promising an an-new body count, Jamie conveniently, if also accidentally, jumps into her best friend Amelia Creston’s (Kelcey Mawema) untested time machine disguised as an old fairground photo booth.

Without additional time-wasting asides about temporal paradoxes, Jamie finds herself in 1987, days before the "Sweet Sixteen Killer "murdered his first victim. Deciding then and there to change history, save the killer’s victims, and more importantly, meet and chill out with her teen mom (Olivia Holt), Jamie thinks she has a near-foolproof to fix the past and create a better future. That plan lasts as long as it takes for Jamie to meet teen Pam, a preening, self-involved, egocentric mean girl and charter member of the Mollys (illogically named for their collective fascination with counter-cultural icon Molly Ringwald). Obviously inspired by Heathers, the Mollys include Pam and the three future victims, and runs their high school with their caustic, condescending wit and ability to make anyone an outcast or pariah with a collective nod of their well-coifed heads.

Jamie enlists the aid of Amelia’s (teen) mom, Lauren (Troy L. Johnson) -- like her unborn, future daughter, a big-brained science-hero positively obsessed with time travel, an obsession she'll conveniently pass onto her own daughter -- to repair the now broken time machine. Like daughter, like mother apparently, as Lauren also stands in as Jamie's new best friend, helping to educate Jamie on the bizarrely outdated social and cultural mores of late-80s America. Credited to David Matalon, Sasha Perl-Raver, and Jen D’Angelo, the script contrasts Jamie’s heightened sensitivities with the crass, crude, rude humor of teens born during the Nixon era. The script predictably uses that contrast for humor, though it often works as a mild, modest parody of 80s'-era teen comedies and slashers.

Totally Killer picks up considerably when Jamie’s initial attempts to change the past fail, revealing her presence to the killer, one among many suspects Totally Killer passes in front of the cameras, from the most blatantly obvious to the least, and she, through her own efforts or the Pam-led clique, becomes, if not a target, then an obstacle the killer has to overcome by any bloody and/or gory means necessary. That, in turn, predictably leads to several interlinked set pieces of varying quality and interest, one at an adult-free high-school party filled with drunk, stoned, horny teens, the other in a literal “cabin in the woods,” before concluding at the fairgrounds where Lauren hopes to send Jamie back to the future regardless of the masked killer’s fate.

While Totally Killer doesn’t do anything particularly inventive or innovative with the sci-fi/slasher premise, liberally borrowing from a shedload filled with '80s slashers and teen comedies, what it does do, it does relatively well. Centering Totally Killer on the self-aware, resourceful Jamie (amiably, enthusiastically played by Shipka), desperate to change the past, save her mother, and avoid final girl status, qualifies as a smart, if not entirely bold, decision. Amidst all of the slasher-related mayhem, periodic bursts of lightweight, superficial humor help overcome the occasional lulls and related rough patches scattered throughout Totally Killer’s one hour, 45-minute running time.

Grading on a pass/fail system, Totally Killer more than earns a passing grade. It's also a perfect way for slasher fans to get themselves into the right frame of mind for a month-long celebration of Halloween.

Totally Killer premiered at Fantastic Fest 2023. It begins streaming on Friday, October 6, 2023, via Prime Video.

Totally Killer

  • Nahnatchka Khan
  • David Matalon
  • Sasha Perl-Raver
  • Jen D'Angelo
  • Kiernan Shipka
  • Olivia Holt
  • Charlie Gillespie
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Julie BowenKelcey MawemaKiernan ShipkaNahnatchka KhanOlivia HoltTotally KillerTroy L. JohnsonDavid MatalonSasha Perl-RaverJen D'AngeloCharlie GillespieComedyHorror

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