[review by JA Kerswell]
Amazon Studio’s TOTALLY KILLER is an infectiously entertaining time travel slasher with the kind of big-budget sheen that only used to be reserved for cinema releases. A teenager travels back to 1987 to try and save her Mom from being killed in the present-day by the recently resurfaced ‘Sweetheart Killer’ - who had carried out a murder spree 35 years earlier. The film is blessed with a witty script that makes the most out of the clash between Gen Y and Gen X. Often genuinely funny, it also doesn’t skimp on the slasher movie thrills and spills either.
|The 'Sweetheart Killer' returns in TOTALLY KILLER.|
Jamie (Kiernan Shipka) is a typically irritable 17-year-old. She rolls her eyes at her mother, Pam (Julie Bowen) and Dad (Lochlyn Munro), for their constant worrying about her safety. 35 years earlier, a slasher had murdered three High School students on their 16th birthdays - stabbing them 16 times. Amelia moans: “I can’t go to a concert because your friends were murdered 35 years ago?” It’s Halloween Night and she insists she’ll be safe from a killer that vanished so long ago - and eventually persuades them to let her go with her best friend Amelia (Kelcey Mawema). However, whilst her Dad drops her off, someone dressed as the ‘Sweetheart Killer’ breaks into their home and, after a protracted battle, brutally kills Pam.
Jamie is bereft at her mother’s death and regrets being so dismissive of her when she was alive. She investigates her mother’s links with Chris (Jonathan Potts), who runs a podcast about the killings and hosts murder tours around the town. He reveals that Pam had feared this outcome; as the killer left a note back in 1987 saying that they would come after her one day in the future.
She also discovers that her friend Amelia has been working on a time machine for her class science project (as you do!) - set to the date of October 27 1987 (the day before the first murders). They figure that if she can go back in time she can save her Mom from being killed - and perhaps prevent the other murders. The only problem is they can’t work out how until a freak occurrence - when she is attacked by the killer at a dilapidated amusement park - sees her transported back to the strange, neon world of 1987. Jamie struggles to adapt to the culture of the time but is in a race to reach the victims-to-be and mitigate any unintentional consequences to the future …
|In a modern twist, Chris (Jonathan Potts) runs 'Sweetheart Killer' murder tours across town.|
Horror comedies are a tricky proposition. It is difficult to get the balance right to both be amusing and deliver the required thrills. Female director Nahnatchka Khan totally nails it with TOTALLY KILLER. It helps that most of the comedy comes from Jamie’s fish-out-of-water reaction to the realities of 1987. An irony is that her retro clothes don’t stand out but her modern views do. She is horrified by the lack of health and safety and a man wearing a ‘FBI - Federal Booby Inspector’ t-shirt - calling it “… so problematic.” Even more so when she gets a lift from a woman in a shell suit, constantly puffing on a cigarette with her kids engulfed in a fug of smoke in the back. Her task is complicated when she discovers that teenage Pam (Olivia Holt) is the head of a mean girl clique - and is friends with the three future victims (who all dress like Molly Ringwald and call themselves The Mollies - in an obvious nod to HEATHERS (1987)). The culture friction approach works because it is handled so deftly and with a knowing wink - and is helped especially by Shipka’s spot-on deadpan performance and great one-liners.
Arguably, the slasher movie theatrics play second fiddle to the comedy. However, there are enough suspense cat-and-mouse pieces to satisfy any fan of the genre. Given the lightness of the comedy - which brings to mind that other culture clash classic THE BRADY BUNCH (1995) remake - the violence is surprisingly graphic. It works because the horror is never trivialised and is always played straight. The ‘Sweetheart Killer’ wears a grinning - almost Max Headroom’esque - mask, and is at times genuinely menacing. An obvious comparison would be Todd Strauss-Schulson’s fantastic THE FINAL GIRLS (2015) - the director even threw some shade at this film’s similarities to his.
|In 1987, Jamie (Kiernan Shipka) comes face-to-face with the Mollies - led by her future mother-to-be (Olivia Holt).|
TOTALLY KILLER cheekily acknowledges its debt to BACK TO THE FUTURE (1985) by constantly referencing it - as well as namechecking SCREAM (1996). However, it is less concerned with the post-modernist quips of that series. The film almost seems to exist in a 1987 that isn’t familiar with the concept of masked killers stalking and killing teens. Although very stylised, it does nail the looks - and that’s part of the fun. As you might expect, it makes great use of some retro tunes to paint the scene - everything from Bananarama’s ‘Venus’ to Echo and the Bunnymen’s haunting ‘The Killing Moon’ to ‘Let the Music Play’ by Shannon.
A co-production with Blumhouse, TOTALLY KILLER was shot in Canada between May 12 to June 23, 2022 - which leads to an amusing in-joke with Jamie explaining her unexpected presence in 1987 as her being a Canadian exchange student. Kiernan Shipka is probably best known for playing the title role in Netflix’s CHILLING ADVENTURES OF SABRINA (2018). Julie Bowen is known for her recurring role in the TV comedy series MODERN FAMILY - although she did appear in 90s horror sequel AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN PARIS (1997). Lochlyn Munro also has horror and comedy pedigree having appeared in SCARY MOVIE (2000), FREDDY VS JASON (2023) - and excellent newer slasher INITIATION (2020). Liana Liberato who plays Tiffany appeared in SCREAM VI (also 2023).
Obviously, suspending your disbelief is necessary - especially with the time machine made in a photo booth - but TOTALLY KILLER is a frothy beer keg of a movie and as much fun as you can have with your clothes on.
female: 4 / male: 3
1) Female burns to death
2) Female stabbed to death
3) Female stabbed to death
4) Female stabbed to death
5) Female has throat slashed
6) Male stabbed in the head
7) Male stabbed to death
7) Male vapourised
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