Director Nahnatchka Khan’s “Totally Killer” is a clever blend of genres that presents a fish-out-of-water comedy intertwined with time-travel sci-fi that surprisingly holds together. While the horror aspect of this film may be its weakest link, the overall experience remains lively and enjoyable.
The primary reason for this is the charismatic presence of Kiernan Shipka, who effortlessly handles snappy dialogue and seamlessly navigates the film’s tonal shifts. David Matalon, Sasha Perl-Raver, and Jen D’Angelo’s script demands Shipka to transform from a surly teen to a grief-stricken daughter and finally into a determined investigator, a challenge she tackles with grace.
The story unfolds on Halloween night in 2023, with Shipka’s character, Jamie Hughes, preparing for a night out with her friends. Her mother, Pam (Julie Bowen), is naturally worried about her safety, given the town’s grim history. Thirty-five years ago, during Halloween, three teenagers were brutally murdered, casting a shadow over the small community. However, when Jamie inadvertently finds herself transported back to 1987 through a time machine, she believes she can prevent the murders and alter history.
But it’s not as simple as she imagines. A recurring element in “Totally Killer” is the skepticism Jamie faces when she tries to warn the people of 1987, including the ineffectual town sheriff (Randall Park). The clash between modern sensibilities and the ’80s way of life, from casual misogyny to constant smoking, provides insightful moments that transcend the typical ’80s nostalgia. The film also stands out with its selection of songs that deviate from the usual movie soundtracks of the era, featuring tracks like Bananarama’s “Venus,” Echo and the Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon,” and Shannon’s “Let the Music Play.”
To succeed in her mission, Jamie must integrate herself with the potential victims and her teenage mother, who was surprisingly their best friend and a mean-girl leader. Olivia Holt excels as the young Pam, capturing not only her physical resemblance to Julie Bowen but also the complex blend of comedy and cruelty required for her character. As Jamie tries to persuade these people about their impending fate based on horror movie clichés, their skepticism adds an engaging layer to the plot.
“Totally Killer” makes some inspired storytelling choices, including flashes to the present day while Jamie is stuck in 1987, though a subplot involving a murder podcast feels somewhat predictable. The film also offers a clear-eyed examination of the insular nature of small-town life and the perils of peaking in high school, which can leave individuals trapped in their pasts. Shipka’s deadpan reactions provide a refreshing contrast to the false nostalgia surrounding the belief that the ’80s were simpler and superior.
Nevertheless, the film’s least captivating aspect is the slasher scenes, which lack the finesse in staging, shooting, and editing. For instance, a stabbing in a waterbed is clumsily executed. The identity and motive of the murderer pale in comparison to the resourceful final girl who ultimately saves the day and the era.
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