Nahnatchka Khan’s Totally Killer is a Fun Homage to Teen Slashers

Nahnatchka Khan’s comedy time travelling teen slasher Totally Killer wears its influences on its extremely aware sleeve and that’s entirely the point of the movie and where the real joy of it is located. Imagine a dash of Final Girls, a sprinkle of Back to the Future, a heavy dollop of Happy Death Day and the sequel, a saucing of Scream, a base note of Heathers, a sliver of Valentine, all served up on a plate made from Halloween and other iconic 70s and 80s slashers. Fondly embracing all the genre tropes you’d expect, Totally Killer is also a commentary on how anyone survived the eighties at all! Replete with jokes about the wild frontier which was pre “helicopter parents” and a free-for-all with limited supervision and general lack of interest from adults meaning teens made their own rules… and what stupid rules some of them were.

It’s Halloween 2023 in North Vernon. Sixteen-year-old Jamie Hughes (Kiernan Shipka) is rolling her eyes at her cringeworthy and overprotective parents Pam and Blake (Julie Bowen and Lochlyn Munro). Thirty-five years ago a series of murders known as “The Sweet Sixteen Killings” rocked the sleepy suburb. Pam lost three of her best friends in the lead up to Halloween and has been traumatised since. Local true crime podcaster Chris Dubasage (Jonathan Potts) spends every Halloween trying to drum up interest in the murders. People wander the streets wearing the killer’s mask (some kind of Max Headroom styled get-up). The unsolved murders are a point of curiosity for some, an obsession for others. Unfortunately for Jamie who just wants to go to a ‘Killer Instinct’ gig with her best friend, Amelia (Kelcey Mawema) and drop some gummies, the killings have left Pam paranoid that at any moment the perpetrator may re-emerge. Jamie exasperatedly splutters “Get over it,” as she heads out the door. Unfortunately, the last words she will say to Pam as she is murdered that very night by a man in a “Sweet Sixteen Killer” mask, stabbed sixteen times just like the murders back in 1987.

Broken by the death of her mother who was the local school counsellor and generally beloved in the community, Jamie watches while the authorities once again do nothing to solve the murder. The best they can come up with is the school football coach Randy Finkle (Tommy Europe) suggesting “Avoid the knife, keep your life.” The school principal Doug Summers (Conrad Coates) and town Sheriff Kara Lim (Patti Kim) are concerned, but in Jamie’s eyes, not concerned enough. Could this be the beginning of a new round of murders?

Cue Amelia and her homemade time machine based on the notebook of her mother Lauren (Kimberly Huie) conveniently located in the now defunct local theme park. The killer comes for Jamie, and hey-presto, she’s back in 1987 with a chance to do something no-one did at the time, find and stop the killer. Nahnatchka Khan is distinctly uninterested in the timey-wimey mechanics of time travel and its repercussions and just hopes the audience won’t think too hard about it. The point is that Gen Z is about to meet Gen X and all that entails.

First stop is going to the local high school and locating Pam Miller (Olivia Holt) and the mother/daughter meeting is not quite what Jamie expected. An incredibly violent game of dodgeball wearing a uniform that makes Jamie feel like she’s working at Hooters, introduces her to Pam, AKA ‘The Witch of Vernon’ a distinct mean girl who hangs in a clique with the soon to be victims of the killer. Tiffany Clark (Liana Liberato), Marisa Song (Stephi Chin-Salvo), Heather Hernandez (Anna Diaz), and Pam make up ‘The Mollys’ the queens of the school who dress like their hero Molly Ringwald. Understanding that Pam isn’t just going to take to the “exchange student from Canada” Jamie Le Fleur, Jamie teams up with science genius Lauren Creston (Troy L. Johnson) to work out how to stop the murders and get her back to her own timeline once she has done it.

Teen versions of everyone Jamie knows populate the school. Coach Finkle is Randy (Jeremy Monn-Djasgnar) a dick obsessed jerk and bully. Sheriff Kim is Kara (Ella Choi) the stoner daughter of Sheriff Dennis Kim (Randall Park) and also a bully. Teen Blake Hughes (Charlie Gillespie) is the hot guy everyone is interested in and is dating Tiffany – he’s also a clueless lump. On the outside of the cool kids circle is young Chris Dubasage, a nerdy student reporter type who hopes to prove his worth to his father Norm Dubasage (Fred Henderson) who in 2023 is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. Then there’s shy and studious Doug Summers (Nathaniel Appiah). Knowing what’s going to happen Jamie tries to get into to Tiffany’s sweet sixteen party, only to be forcibly ejected by Randy and Kara. Eventually she begins to form a connection with Pam when she convinces her she’s psychic and can stop the murders, although too late for poor Tiffany who overhears that Eddie Royal (Tate Chernen) will be a hit musician in the future and decides to summarily dump Blake for a waterbed tryst with him. The killer strikes and Tiffany dies, but instead of being found in the garage like the original murder she is found in her parents’ bedroom which leads Jamie to understand that she is having an impact on the past but still can’t seem to stop the killings. A fact which is noted by Chris Dubasage and Amelia as they watch the goings on from 2023.

Essentially Totally Killer is a fish out of water comedy which also happens to be a meta teen slasher. Jamie has to deal with how incredibly stupid the people are that she’s trying to protect and the openly racist, sexist, homophobic, body shaming era she’s walked into. For Jamie and her sensibilities this is the wild west. When the comment is made that Tiffany could have lived if she just gave Eddie a blowjob Jamie comments “Yeah. Let’s not make that the lesson.” Trying to teach anyone anything in 1987 is a bucket of frustration for Jamie: from the police laughing about her finding DNA evidence, to having to deal with being a potential suspect, to trying to get Marisa out of town to save her life only ending up with them all ending up in a remote cabin in the woods. She also has to deal with keeping Pam and Blake from starting a relationship because they didn’t get together until after college. It’s a lot for Jamie to take on while trying to unmask a killer, form a relationship with her teen mother, and get the hell out of 1987 before her phone battery dies.

While a film like Final Girls had the emotional journey between mother and daughter at its heart, Totally Killer is more concerned with wood panelled station wagons, teen hook-ups, the awfulness of the teen sex comedy of the era and paying homage to a period. There are some terrific kill sequences, but the horror aspect is less important than the comedy. The dénouement in Billy’s Fun Park is very slick and uses a Dollhouse of Horrors and a gravitron ride to great effect. Totally Killer is a lot of fun and a winning performance by Kiernan Shipka keeps the shenanigans afloat. It is a tad too fluffy and insubstantial in places? Yes. However, its charming and if you can roll with its messiness and lack of logic Totally Killer is a sweet Halloween treat. Also, true crime podcasters are not journalists and TikTok is one of the great evils of the 21st Century – Khan is totally on the money there.

Director: Nahnatcha Khan

Cast: Kiernan Shipka, Olivia Holt, Charlie Gillespie

Writers: David Matalon, Sasha Perl-Raver, Jen D’Angelo, (story by David Matalon, Sasha Perl-Raver)

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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