Blumhouse has experimented with the straight-to-streaming model before. A couple of small films have found their way onto Netflix, but it was really the studio’s Prime Video original “Welcome to the Blumhouse” line that kept horror fans satisfied during the worst of the pandemic in 2020 with four brand-new features and again to a more muted effect with four more movies in 2021. Blumhouse’s relationship with streamers like Prime Video and Peacock continued in the form of the day-and-date simultaneous theatrical/streaming release of David Gordon Green’s Halloween Kills and Halloween Ends as well as streaming exclusive premieres for They/Them and Sick. Totally Killer is the latest of these exclusive releases. Directed by Nahnatchka Khan (Always Be My Maybe), Totally Killer is an unexpectedly strong horror-comedy that combines time travel with slashers in a way that, though maybe not entirely original, is an earnest treat all the same.
When the first trailer for Totally Killer dropped, it got immediate comparisons to 2015’s The Final Girls. Truth be told, that’s being kind; it was essentially called a total knock-off. But that’s not entirely fair, as The Final Girls features its lead character literally going into a 1980s slasher film, containing a Scream-like meta-commentary approach in the proceedings. Totally Killer has a vaguely similar conceit: a young woman goes back in time (in a manner of speaking) to stop a killer, having to work with a young version of her mother to stop them. That’s where the similarities begin and end, as Totally Killer is for the most part a goofy, broad comedy that centers itself mostly on the mother-daughter relationship.
Kiernan Shipka of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina fame plays Jamie, a rebellious high school teen who feels suffocated by her overprotective mom (Julie Bowen) on Halloween night. Her mother Pam has a good reason to be nervous since on Halloween night thirty-five years ago, her three best friends were murdered by the “Sweet Sixteen Killer,” an anonymous slasher known for his distinctive mask mimicking ‘80s icon “Max Headroom” and for disappearing after the crimes. When Pam eventually relents and gives in to letting Jamie go to a much-anticipated concert, she gets the worst kind of blast from the past when the masked maniac returns and finishes the job – making her his fourth victim. Finding her mother dead, Jamie is distraught, until her best friend Amelia (Kelcey Mawema) shows her science fair project: a brand new time machine that she just can’t seem to get working.
A series of mishaps later, the 17-year-old Jamie falls into the time machine, ending up back in 1987 – the year of the original killings. Whereas most movies of this ilk would use this as an opportunity to go super over-the-top, Totally Killer already starts off with a wildly campy tone. Therefore, writers David Mantalon, Sasha Perl-Raver, and Jen D’Angelo make their version of the ‘80s go even further than most. Totally Killer is totally ridiculous in a really delightful way. Kiernan Shipka’s anchoring, sardonic performance opens up to some hilarious observations about cultural differences between our times: her school’s mascot in the past is a racist caricature, oral sex is unpopular because “pee comes out of there,” and a whole tray of pot brownies doesn’t affect her due to the low potency of ‘80s marijuana. Even a local police officer (Randall Park) doesn’t know what DNA is!
The pastel, candy-colored ‘80s is portrayed as very unironic, in a similar manner to the “movie-fied” version of the 1950s in Back to the Future. Heck, a lot of Totally Killer‘s script calls back to Back to the Future. Amelia’s mother Lauren (Troy Leigh-Anne Johnson), the builder of the time machine, is this movie’s Doc Brown – the tech genius who, in between her crackpot inventing, helps Jamie to understand the basics of time travel. Totally Killer has a blast writing its own distinct rules for how time travel works and putting Jamie in situations where she has to consider if what she’s going to do will mess up the timeline. It’s tense, wacky stuff, as on top of trying to figure out the killer’s identity, Jamie has to try to protect the young teen version of her mother Pam (Olivia Holt).
Where Totally Killer really comes to life is embracing its “coming-of-age” trappings. The cultural differences of 1987 vs. now of course spearhead a lot of fish out of water comedy, but also put Jamie in a position where she has to grow up really fast. Olivia Holt’s crass Pam is a carefree, often rude character who initially hates Jamie. However, when the two start to warm up to each other, they learn how to balance being less and more carefree. It’s a sickly sweet dynamic that gives the warm and fuzzies without coming off as cynical. Totally Killer, by showing the past and the present day, has a poignant message about how it’s never too late to change and how that change is necessary for growth.
This is still a slasher film, after all, so how are the kills? They’re… fine. The Sweet Sixteen Killer has an iconic look, moving with a mix of ominous Michael Myers lumbering and modern slasher viciousness. Yet, despite an R-rating that gets plenty of use in dropping curse words and crude humor, there’s not much in the way of memorable bloody violence. A third-act sequence set in a Gravitron-style carnival ride provides some novel physicality, yet it’s too little too late by that point.
Honestly, though, it hardly matters, as the point of Totally Killer isn’t to appease the gorehounds. The point of Totally Killer is very close to what Hot Tub Time Machine is supposed to do: provide a hyper-stylized, parodic version of the 1980s as a backdrop for great gags, killer performances, and a sweet coming-of-age story. Will this be anyone’s new favorite horror film? Doubtful, but it might be someone’s new favorite comedy. It boasts loads of genuine heart and a snappy sense of humor, resulting in a great comfort watch for many going forward.