Olivia Holt, Charlie Gillespie, Kiernan Shipka, Stephi Chin-Salvo & Jeremy Monn-Djasngar in Totally Killer.

Review: ‘Totally Killer’ Is A Smart Update Of 80s Genre Comedies Complete With New Problems And New Successes

A few days ago, Totally Killer played to a crowd at Fantastic Fest, a film festival where production companies look to help nerdy and tasteful genre fare stand-out and gain momentum prior to release. It makes perfect sense that Amazon and Blumhouse would bet on this film, as it is always entertaining and engaging, even in weaker moments (more on that later). The cast deserves credit for this, but so does director Nahnatchka Khan, whose years spent in the sitcom trenches helped prepare her to blend comedy with the lighting and color palette of romance and foodie decadence in Always Be My Maybe, and 1980s horror and John Hughes films here. Unfortunately, the film feels a bit hemmed in by those conventions to rise to the level it's clearly capable of.

Early on, we’re introduced to Jamie (Kiernan Shipka), the daughter of Pam and Blake (Julie Bowen and Lochlyn Munro), who survived a murder spree twenty-six years earlier. Even though Jamie is the co-protagonist of the film, there’s no depth given to her on the page, and she works only because Shipka paints the blank canvas of the character with such vivid color. The same is true of Pam, Blake, and most of the cast, who are boiled down to stock traits and broad quirks. The other two co-protagonists, Black geniuses Amelia, and her mother, Lauren (Kelcey Mawerma and Troy Leigh-Anne Johnson/Kimberly Huie) are written as placid nerds obsessed with time-travel, and nothing much beyond this. Again, the actors all work from the top of their intelligence to find grace notes that make their characters not only work, but feel believable.

Kiernan Shipka & Olivia Holt in Totally Killer.
Kiernan Shipka & Olivia Holt in Totally Killer. Courtesy of Prime Video.

With this in mind, it’s worth considering the levels being pulled for the emotional beats of the film. Pam is killed in the present by the Sweet Sixteen Killer, so Amelia helps Jamie time travel back to 1987 to stop the killer immediately. She meets the teenage version of her mom (Olivia Holt), who is the most alive and electric member of her friends group, with the script oddly carving out personality specifics for her for perhaps an emotional build, but it never pays off. Holt is out of her depth when it comes to the climactic scene involving her and her future daughter fighting the killer. A lot of criticism has compared Totally Killer to The Final Girls, despite the latter not being a sci-fi film, and having the mother-daughter co-leads have an actual age difference that allows the older actor (Malin Ackerman) to tap into her teenage self from a place of kindness and lend it emotional heft. Holt isn’t in that same space, so while great as a teenager, neither she nor the script can quite land the perspective needed to make an emotional connection sing.

The emotional success of the film comes in the acting between Shipka and Troy Leigh-Anne Johnson, and the final scene with Kimberly Huie. Troy Leigh-Anne Johnson is able to conjure a vivid person who is both of the film’s world and grounded in believable reactions to meeting a time-traveler and being told she has a daughter. There’s a genuine sweetness to Johnson that underpins her performance, and goes a long way to helping her land one of the two best best comedy moments in the film. Later, when Shipka and Huie share the final scene in the film, Huie exudes motherliness and brilliance in a way that is heartfelt, and makes the scene the closest instance to anything resembling a tear jerking moment. If for any reason there’s a sequel, the writers would be wise to focus on Huie as much as possible.

Olivia Holt, Charlie Gillespie, Kiernan Shipka, Stephi Chin-Salvo & Jeremy Monn-Djasngar in Totally Killer.
Olivia Holt, Charlie Gillespie, Kiernan Shipka, Stephi Chin-Salvo & Jeremy Monn-Djasngar in Totally Killer. Courtesy of James Dittiger & Prime Video.

Beyond this, Nahnatchka Khan and the actors do a fantastic job of finding a way to use a sense of comedy to work with the stakes of the film. It’s important to note that the comedy here isn’t looking to be hilarious, or even to generate laughs, but to be amusing. There’s lots of discussion about blowjobs, doing them in odd doll rides at the local carnival, or not doing them because it’s where urine comes from. There’s a Mean Girls insult spirit to the clique of teenage Pam and her friend group, along with observations about the 80s that don’t do much comedically, but that serve the same purpose as bumpers on a bowling lane: they help the stakes go down easier. The film is overtly a home invasion/serial killer style slasher that feels relentless and unnerving the entire time, so levity is important so as not to burn the audience out, or induce panic attacks. With this said, there is one truly great comedic exchange that works because it’s written as an aside. Dumb 80s cop Sheriff Dennis Lim (Randall Park) and another officer have this exchange: “Old people, sick people, and people with dogs.” “That’s the order you hate people in?”

The horror elements of the film also succeed wildly, with the Michael Myers unstoppable killer trope finding an update in three distinct genre looks. Nahnatchka Khan has been pushing for an emphasis on the sci-fi or time-travel elements, which we’ll get to in a second, but it must be noted how great she does with the pastiche of palettes she pulls from horror history. The 90s grime of unsettling carnival imagery and meat-locker murders is settled on for the finale, but prior to that the film finds intensity in scenes that pull from indie “natural acting” horror from the late aughts and 2010s (Think Duplass Brothers and Dave Franco’s horror efforts), and the auteur-ish home invasion films like You’re Next and other films that involve one setting and lots of masks. In one memorable scene, we watch as Shipka’s Jamie frantically tries to get back inside a cabin to protect her mother and her mother’s friends, only to see that the killer is in the house, waiting to make his move.

Elsewhere, the film is successful in keeping its time-travel story straight, although the final twist involving another killer that tries to make use of it simply doesn’t work in its logic. Still, the film has successful elements, and opens the door for more films with diverse-ish casts to reimagine the genre and its history as something that didn’t belong to simply white or male points of view. With a better script, or less studio meddling, it’s possible the next effort like this could be one to celebrate.

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