The new Blumhouse/Amazon co-production Totally Killer accrued a bit of social media infamy this past summer upon the release of its first trailer. Horror fans were quick to point out that the plot — a teenage girl mourning the death of her mother goes back in time to stop the masked killer that brought about her demise — was remarkably similar to that of 2015’s The Final Girls, with even that film’s director, Todd Strauss-Schulson, publicly stating on Twitter that he felt more than a little… perturbed. Yet even for viewers without said knowledge, it’s likely more than a few would find the essence of Totally Killer entirely derivative, even as it admittedly inspires a fair share of genuine chuckles. Indeed, if the film is reminiscent of anything, it’s of Christopher Landon’s recent output, which includes a handful of modest Blumhouse hits, among them the Happy Death Day series and Freaky. Totally Killer is similarly a slickly produced and self-aware horror-comedy featuring a sci-fi twist, where the desire to scare is secondary to a well-timed joke or two. And director Nahnatchka Khan — the creative force behind television sitcoms Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23 and Fresh Off the Boat, as well as Netflix feature Always Be My Maybe — seems completely disinterested in leaving any sort of personalized mark, artistic or otherwise, on the proceedings, making its shopworn mechanics and bland visual palette feel even more assembly line than usual.
Despite such transgressions, Totally Killer still manages to entertain, thanks to a game cast and a handful of zippy jokes courtesy of screenwriter Jen D’Angelo. As the film opens, a local podcaster by the name of Chris Dubusage (Jonathan Potts) is detailing the sordid history of his small California town, in which three girls were each murdered on their respective 16th birthdays in 1987. The lone survivor of that friend group, Pam (Julie Bowen), is now happily married with a 16-year-old daughter of her own, Jamie (Kiernan Shipka). Choosing to embrace life instead of hide in the shadows a la the 21-st-century iteration of Laurie Strode, Pam is an active member in her community and beloved by all, even as her daughter predictably finds her lame. It isn’t long before Pam is attacked and murdered on Halloween night by an individual wearing the same disguise as the killer from 1987, which basically consists of a rubber mask that looks like Johnny Bravo, but with a long earring dangling from the left ear. Could this be the same person exacting revenge 36 years later? Jamie is understandably devastated, but luckily her best friend has invented a time machine for the science fair, and so she travels back to 1987 to stop the killer, attempting to save both her mother and the original victims in the process. The wrinkle? Mom and her friends are the mean girls of their particular school, and they don’t take kindly to a stranger trying to meddle in their lives, a fact made clear when teenage mom tells her daughter to go “fuck herself” in both English and Spanish.
Totally Killer gets a lot of mileage out of the obvious differences between 1987’s un-PC culture and the woke posturing of Generation Z. Shipka’s complete commitment to highlighting the bewilderment Jamie feels at every turn brings humanity to a character who is written as nothing more than a bland audience surrogate. She smartly doesn’t try to oversell the comedy, which is essential for this to work, as the jokes themselves are so obvious as to be visible from space. Turns out, there was a lot of unprovoked touching in 1987. And cigarette smoking. And sexual comments that immediately crossed the line into harassment. And name-calling that highlighted that individual’s deficiencies in the most crass ways possible. The proceedings become borderline hypocritical when the filmmakers use the name “Fat Trish” as a supposed teaching lesson, but then repeat it roughly two dozen times because it’s an easy joke (the character in question is at least thankfully never shown). Any rhetoric about our failures at enlightenment as a culture is completely unintentional, but there are worse things than walking ass-backwards into some social commentary that actually lands. One does wish all of this were contained in proceedings that were a tad more consistent, as a subplot involving the current effects of Jamie’s time-jumping is briefly highlighted before being completely forgotten until the end credits. But ultimately, Totally Killer blessedly has only one thing on its mind, and that’s to keep its audience members entertained. In not overdressing things, Khan’s film succeeds more than it fails, which results in the best film that Blumhouse and Amazon have delivered since joining forces in 2020 for an annual October scarefest. That bar has admittedly been set quite low so far in the young collaboration, but in a genre increasingly inclined toward the leaden, having some legitimate, lightweight fun with one of these ventures is no thing to turn your nose up at. Here’s to the next batch!
DIRECTOR: Nahnatchka Khan; CAST: Kiernan Shipka, Olivia Holt, Julie Bowen, Randall Park; DISTRIBUTOR: Amazon Studios; STREAMING: October 6; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 43 min.