Totally Killer (2023)

OCTOBER 4, 2023


After Scream, there was some chatter that there could never be a straight slasher again, because how can a filmmaker go through those motions after they’ve all been skewered so smartly (in a film that managed to have more suspense than most of those straightforward ones ever did, to boot)? Luckily folks found a way, with the likes of Cold Prey (2006) and at least the first of the new Halloween trilogy proving it could still be done and even win over fans who could recite Kevin Williamson’s script by heart. But there’s also been a number of “fun” slasher films that owe a debt to Wes Craven's classic, and in 2017 Blumhouse hit on a goldmine with Happy Death Day, which essentially took the plot of a high concept comedy (Groundhog Day) and added a slasher plot into it. And some of the same team gave us Freaky (pitched as “Freaky Friday the 13th”) plus the Happy Death Day sequel which leaned even more into ‘80s comedy shenanigans, proving there was room to explore in the sub-subgenre. So now we have Totally Killer, which is essentially Back to the Future, but instead of Biff we have a masked slasher threatening our hero’s existence.

Just as Happy Death Day acknowledged Groundhog Day in dialogue, Jamie (Kiernan Shipka) is able to use Back to the Future as a quick explanation when she time travels back to 1987 from 2023 (the movie was shot in 2022, so I assume it was supposed to be a more even 35 years, but on-screen graphics say 2023 - *shrug*), as BTTF had been out for two years by that point*. In fact, shorthand is kind of a crutch in the film, as even the time travel plot is introduced as casually as one might introduce someone trying out a new restaurant – Jamie’s bestie is making a time travel device for the school science fair (alongside things like a baking soda volcano no less) and no one really seems alarmed or incredulous about it. And it works! And then Jamie finds the friend’s mom (a science geek who gave her the time travel idea in the first place), who quickly accepts the idea that this young woman is her future daughter’s best friend and needs her help. It’s a bit of an issue for all these high concept slashers, because we’ve all seen the originals (and slashers) and thus are just kind of waiting for both ideas to come to the forefront of the narrative, so they can’t spend too much time prior to the big event and thus sort of have to quickly race through all the setup (something the OGs didn’t – Marty McFly could pace himself a bit, since he was the first). But at the same time, if you’re sitting down for a time travel movie in the first place, it’s probably safe to assume you’re not too much of a stickler for real world logic, so it shouldn’t be too much of an issue that they're basically racing through/past any questions you might have.

Those who sat down for the horror part of this horror comedy might be harder to win over, though. Slasher fans may be a bit dismayed to hear that the balance is shifted more toward racking up laughs than a body count despite the R rating (the PG-13 Happy Death Day found a more even balance), but the kills are on par with something like Scream when they occur, and one is downright brutal as the actress in question really sells her realization that she’s about to die (it gave me flashbacks to poor Rob's "He's killing me!" in F13 4). The resolution of the whodunit mystery isn’t all that surprising either, but unlike Happy Death Day 2U it’s at least something ingrained into the narrative as opposed to something they just sort of threw in because they felt they had to, and Jamie’s appearance in the 1987 timeline throws a wrench into the original order of deaths, so even though we’re told at the beginning who died and when, it gets mixed up a bit to allow for a little more intrigue it might have had otherwise. Long story short, the slasher element may not be as prominent as one might hope, but it’s treated with some thought when it’s in the spotlight. Not sure I love the mask though; it’s a little too far into the goofy look (again, something Happy Death Day triggered), to the extent that he basically just looks like Beavis with an earring.

But I sure did laugh a lot. First off it’s got Randall Park in a bit role, and that guy never fails to make me cackle with glee. He’s the sheriff in 1987 who (naturally) disbelieves Jamie’s story that she’s time traveled and wants to stop some murders before they happen, and every time he waves her off he finds a way to make it hilarious (his response to Jamie's "DNA evidence" nearly left me on the floor laughing so hard). The script also gets a lot of mileage about how Jamie is very much a product of a more accepting/acceptable 2023 environment and is frequently disgusted/stunned by how casual and “unsafe” the 1980s were, perfectly encapsulated when realizes she has to enroll at the school to get close to the victims (and find the killer) and starts to come up with an elaborate backstory only for the secretary in the school office to not care at all and just hand her a schedule. And it’s a nice change of pace for her to discover her mom was kind of a B in high school; there’s obviously some surface similarities to The Final Girls in the plot, but by focusing on the humor and Jamie’s increasing exasperation that her mom could probably use a brush with death to stop being such a jerk, it kept comparisons at bay. Sure, maybe it didn’t have anything as emotional as the mom’s dance in the rain in that film, but I was laughing too often to notice.

It also does something that I don’t think I’ve seen in any time travel movie (spoiler ahead), which is that when our hero returns to her own timeline, her friend’s mom gives her a notebook of all the things that she inadvertently changed in 1987 that present day her should know already (but doesn’t, because time travel). It of course just highlights the very reason that time travel is such an impossibility (anything you change would prevent your own existence), but it’s still a cute idea when (again) you’re just going along with the ride and accepting the silly idea in the first place. Like most people I enjoy Back to the Future a lot, but every time I watch I always wonder about the Marty from the day before, the one who bought the truck and such – where did that version go? Our Marty (Marty #1) goes back in time, changes things, and sets his parents on a different life path, one in which they have a son named Marty (Marty #2) who buys a truck that Biff cleans for him, right? So where does that Marty go when Marty #1 returns? Marty #1 didn’t inherit his memories and life experiences, as he was confused by all of them, so there’s a Marty with those memories/experience who just, what? Disappeared? So this idea kind of meets us halfway on the paradox, which I can respect. I mean, the only time travel movie that holds up to scrutiny with this sort of thing is Primer, which is damn near impossible to follow, so if you have to choose one over the other, I think going with “sloppy fun” over “requires flow charts to follow along” is the right way to go.

So, yeah: it’s a lot of fun as long as you a. aren’t the type to get too hung up on time travel’s inherent flaws from a narrative perspective (as Park says, “they never make sense”) and b. aren’t hoping it will replace Halloween or Friday the 13th as your favorite slasher movie of all time. Both elements are there to serve a fun comedy about how the “awesome” 80s were filled with a shocking lack of concern for people’s wellbeing (the mother with the carful of smoke - *chef’s kiss*) and horrible attitudes that we’ve made great strides to change (there’s a running gag about someone named “Fat Trish”, which Jamie keeps trying/failing to course correct to simply “Trish”). Sometimes it seems like it’s been cut down from a longer story (there’s a VERY minor subplot about Jamie’s grandmother that seems leftover from older drafts, for example), but one can’t fault this sort of movie for just trying to get to the fun stuff as economically as possible, and Shipka is one of those performers who is always game for whatever she's being asked to do, so that goes a long way into making it easier to just go with it. And there’s a gag I won’t spoil here, involving an upcoming test, that was both hilarious AND a sort of “Wait, why has no one ever made that joke before in one of these things?” moment that earned my full appreciation, so: well done! I'm glad I got to see it with a theatrical crowd (thank you Beyond Fest) before it premieres on Amazon Prime; that makes two crowd pleasing slashers in a row that were inexplicably given streaming only releases (last year's Sick being the other) but a prime slot at Beyond for those of us who understand how much more fun these things are on the big screen.

What say you?

*They really should have just said it was 1988, because they also watch a VHS of Robocop, which was barely out of theaters at the time the movie takes place! To the IMDB anachronism page!


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