Capsule Review: Totally Killer (2023)

What if Back to the Future gets a female version of Marty McFly and travelling back in time turns out to be stopping the brutal murders before they happen? That’s the high-concept premise in Jason Blum-produced Totally Killer. Of course, the combination of the slasher/horror genre and time-travel element is nothing new, with movies like The Final Girls (2015) and Happy Death Day (2017) serving as examples.

Except for Totally Killer doesn’t fully embrace the aforementioned two movies’ storytelling patterns — the time loop, that is. Here, we have Jamie (Kiernan Shipka) — a typical rebellious 16-year-old teenager, who feels annoyed with her overprotective mum, Pam (Julie Bowen). Pam still couldn’t forget about the fateful Halloween night in 1987 when her three high-school buddies were brutally stabbed to death by the notorious “Sweet Sixteen Killer”. She has been paranoid ever since and now, she worries about her daughter’s safety for going out with her best friend, Amelia (Kelcey Mawema) on the night of Halloween.

Well, bad things eventually happen and Amelia turns out to be a tech genius, who invented a time machine inside a photo booth for her latest science fair project in a derelict amusement park. After a recent tragic event that saw the long-dormant Sweet Sixteen Killer returning to the killing spree. One of the killer’s targets is Jamie and what follows next revolves around her travelling back in time in October 1987.

Once there, she has to get used to the 1980s surroundings and find ways to befriend her future mum, Pam (Olivia Holt) and Pam’s three friends including Tiffany (Liana Liberato), Marisa (Stephi Chin-Salvo) and Heather (Anna Diaz). As time is running out before the killer murders the first victim, Jamie tries her best to prevent the killings from happening.

Nahnatchka Khan, whose primary repertoire is mainly comedies seen in some of her TV episodes including Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23 and Fresh Off the Boat, is having fun with the Back to the Future-style slasher concept. The movie works well when Jamie’s Gen Z sensibility doesn’t sit well with her upon discovering the huge cultural differences back in the day in 1987. There are plenty of worthwhile self-referential jokes related to related movies like Scream and even Avengers: Endgame (!).

It also helps the movie have Kiernan Shipka perfectly typecast as a frustrating teenager trying to save the day while making sense of the 1980s past. She pairs well with Olivia Holt’s snobbish turn as the teenage Pam. Randall Park, in the meantime, equally shines in his hilariously cynical small role as Sheriff Dennis Lim.

But despite the entertaining self-aware comedy and a game cast, Totally Killer feels oddly restrained when comes to fulfilling the 1980s slasher genre. It lacks the suspense and thrills even if the movie is meant to be mocking the genre. Sure, we get to see graphic scenes of the killer stabbing the victim brutally multiple times. The image of the killer wearing a Max Headroom-esque rubber mask with a knife in the hand looks potentially creepy but sadly, doesn’t make much of a lasting impression here. The overall stakes are surprisingly low and by the time the climactic third act takes place, I was hoping Khan could have done more than just throw in the tedious run, stalk and kill moments.

Totally Killer is currently streaming on Prime Video.