‘Totally Killer’ Fantastic Fest Review – Blumhouse’s Time Travel Slasher is Totally Charming

When the trailer for Totally Killer was released a few weeks ago, there was a bit of an uproar on social media claiming that the film was ripping off The Final Girls (review). While there are undoubtedly similarities between the two films, Nahnatchka Khan‘s horror comedy has far more in common with something like Christopher Landon’s Happy Death Day films (specifically Happy Death Day 2U) than that 2015 film, aiming for a more absurdist, comedy-forward take on the “time travel slasher” sub-genre that apparently exists now. It’s also an incredibly charming little film that wears its influences on its sleeves and has so much fun with them in the hopes that you will too.

Jamie (Kiernan Shipka) has a strained relationship with her overprotective mother Pam (Julie Bowen, in a glorified cameo). You see, back in 1987 Pam’s three friends were brutally murdered by the “Sweet 16 Slasher” and Pam, who has lived a life of fear ever since, has forced Jamie to go through countless self-defense classes, sacrificing a meaningful relationship with her daughter in exchange for a guarantee that she’ll live to see adulthood. Unfortunately, the killer returns on Halloween night and Jamie winds up traveling back in time to 1987, teaming up with her teenage mother (Olivia Holt) to stop the murders before she’s trapped in the past forever.

One of the most refreshing aspects of the screenplay, which shares three screenwriters in David Matalon, Sasha Perl-Raver and Jen D’angelo (the last of whom was the screenwriter of last year’s Hocus Pocus 2), is that it doesn’t waste any time questioning the logistics of time travel. Set in an almost heightened reality where a teenager can just build a time machine for the school science fair, everyone takes the existence of such an anomaly at face value, allowing the film to avoid expository scenes that would drag down the proceedings.

Khan, who cut her teeth writing for shows like Pepper Ann and American Dad! before creating critically acclaimed sitcoms like Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23 and Fresh Off the Boat, keeps her trademark brand of quick-witted humor here, working with editor Jeremy Cohen to make sure the pacing never lags. She also proves herself adept at the more action-oriented set pieces, of which Totally Killer has a few (a climactic battle in a Gravitron is quite impressive). She also doesn’t skimp on the gore, as the Sweet 16 Killer’s modus operandi is stabbing his/her/their/its victims exactly 16 times (though the killer must resort to things like throat slashings and head stabbings when Jamie gets in the way). This film earns its R rating.

The plot moves at a rapid pace, which unfortunately means that some of the characters (specifically Anna Diaz‘s Heather) are barely characters at all, existing solely to make a single joke or two before meeting a bloody demise. This is usually par for the course in a whodunnit slasher that tries to keep its audience guessing, and Totally Killer is mostly successful when it comes to the mystery. And while it does share similarities with the aforementioned The Final Girls and Happy Death Day/Happy Death Day 2U, it’s very much not trying to be any of those films. What those films do have that Totally Killer lacks is their heart. This isn’t really a critique, as the film is upfront about being more focused on the gags than Jamie’s relationship with her mother, but it still would have been nice to have more interactions between Shipka and Bowen (or more heartfelt interactions between Shipka and Holt) to really sell this aspect of the plot.

As for the gags, many of them are funny. Even when the humor doesn’t land, the performances of the entire cast are so earnest that they make almost all of them work. Well, almost the entire cast. The usually reliable Randall Park, as the town sheriff, gets stuck with some of the film’s biggest groaners and even he can’t make them land. But even when the film is at its messiest, Shipka is there holding it all together. Her comedic chops are out in full force here, and it’s a wonder she doesn’t do more comedy because the girl’s got a knack for it. Totally Killer also gets a lot of mileage out of the lack of political correctness of the ’80s. Most of these observations are surface-level at best (the school has a casually racist Indigenous “Red Devil” mascot), but they still inspire chuckles.

Totally Killer may not go down as an instant classic, but it’s still a very funny and totally charming time, thanks to Khan’s direction and a game cast. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it’s also not trying to. It just wants viewers to have a fun time, and at that it absolutely succeeds. Add in a lot of blowjob jokes and plenty of commentary about sexism in the ’80s and you’ve got a crowd-pleasing horror comedy that should put a big grin on your face from beginning to end.

Totally Killer made its world premiere at Fantastic Fest and will release globally on October 6, exclusively on Prime Video.

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