Totally Killer (USA, 2023)
I wasn’t quite sure about adding Totally Killer to my list this year. It came out after I’d started the challenge, and I’d not really paid it much heed. Also, I’d already reviewed a slasher comedy in the form of You Might Be the Killer. A few people I know mentioned it was fun, however, and I felt like I could do with something light after Shrew’s Nest. This proved to be a wise decision.
Totally Killer is currently available on Prime Video in the UK.
Jamie Hughes is a teenager living in Vernon, a small town where three young women, all friends of her mother, were murdered in 1987. From walking tours of the murder sites to a podcast series about the crimes, the influence of the Sweet 16 Killer still haunts this town. No one knows who the killer was beneath his creepy Max Headroom-inspired mask. He is assumed dead until he unexpectedly returns, 36 years later, killing Jamie’s mother on Halloween.
Luckily for Jamie, her friend Amelia has been working on a time machine for the school science fair. Sure, this makes Amelia sound like an overachiever, but she borrowed the basic design from her mother. As the pair try to get the device working, the Sweet 16 Killer attacks Jamie, who escapes into the past by the skin of her teeth.
Now, back in 1987, Jamie attempts to stop the original killings and expose the Sweet 16 Killer’s identity, hoping to rewrite history and save her mother’s life. Of course, this would be easier if the victims had any sense of self-preservation. In need of allies, Jamie tries to befriend her teenage mother, who turns out to be the chief mean girl of the high school, and seeks out scientific advice from Amelia’s mother.
Will Jamie be able to make any real changes to the past? Why did the Sweet 16 Killer return after so many years? And if Jamie does rewrite history, what kind of life now awaits her in the present?
It was interesting watching Totally Killer so soon after Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II. Both Jamie and Mary Lou are young women plucked from a different time, navigating the strange new/old world of 1987. Despite being a possessing spirit, Mary Lou stands out more thanks to her dated slang. Jamie fits in better, although this is largely because Totally Killer wants to use her to critique the social mores of the 1980s rather than wring out comedy from awkward social situations.
It would have been easy for this social satire to be preachy or clumsy, but Totally Killer handles it deftly. Whenever Jamie encounters an aspect of the era she finds bizarre or unacceptable, she largely comments to herself and moves swiftly on. Even when she does challenge other characters, it’s over with quickly. Taking quick jabs still has the desired effect, but stops the joke from dragging or getting repetitive.
As with films involving time loops, time travel movies of this ilk seem to have developed a specific cinematic grammar. Once we start getting odd moments of focus on characters and locations who don’t seem terribly relevant to the story in the present day, you know these are going to prove important in the past. This was blatant enough in the first act of Totally Killer that I had to force myself to stop looking for them and just enjoy the film.
Much of the final act takes place in a fairground funhouse called the House of Dolls, filled with creepy mannequins arranged in dioramas. Not only is this a great setting for a murder spree, but it gives the FX team a chance to go to down with the kinds of makeup designs you don’t normally get in slasher films.
If you’ve so much as read the elevator pitch for this Totally Killer, you have a good idea of what you’re going to get. While there are a couple of surprises, Totally Killer knows what kind of film it is and leans into it. While this could be a problem if handled badly, the knowing approach turns its predictable aspects into a framework that allows us to have fun elsewhere. This isn’t a story that will blow your mind, but it offers more than enough thrills and laughs to justify itself.
One of the things I appreciated was how deftly Totally Killer cuts through a lot of the bullshit I was expecting. The screenwriters know how many time travel and slasher movies you’ve already seen and trusts you to keep up with genre conventions. Instead of forcing Jamie to play fish out of water for half the film, it allows her to quickly integrate herself into the past by taking advantage of the laxer security of the day and by making lots of Back to the Future references.
Ultimately, Totally Killer is a film that promises an uncomplicated good time and then delivers. It’s as smart as it needs to be, and energetic enough to whisk us past the more ludicrous plot points before we have a chance to overthink them. Definitely worth a watch if you fancy a palate-cleanser between darker or more serious films this month.
The October Horror Movie Challenge
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- Dark August (USA, 1976)
- Huesera: The Bone Woman (Mexico/Peru, 2022)
- The Banishing (UK, 2020)
- Brooklyn 45 (USA, 2023)
- Bloody Muscle Bodybuilder in Hell (Japan, 1995)
- Pyewacket (Canada, 2017)
- Grave Robbers (Mexico, 1989)
- You Might Be The Killer (USA, 2018)
- No One Will Save You (USA, 2023)
- The Sect (Italy, 1991)
- Last Night in Soho (UK, 2021)
- Errementari: The Blacksmith and the Devil (Spain, 2017)
- 47 Metres Down (UK/USA, 2017)
- The Oskars Fantasy (Philippines, 2022)
- In the Earth (UK, 2021)
- Something in the Dirt (USA, 2022)
- Blood Flower (Malaysia, 2023)
- Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (Canada, 1987)
- Older Gods (UK, 2023)
- Come to Daddy (New Zealand, 2020)
- Shrew’s Nest (Spain, 2014)
- Totally Killer (USA, 2023)
- The Premonition (USA, 1976)
- Murder Me, Monster (Argentina, 2018)
- The Gruesome Twosome (USA, 1967)
- Talk to Me (Australia, 2023)
- Gaia (South Africa, 2021)
- Demon (Poland, 2015)
- Juju Stories (Nigeria, 2022)
- El Conde (Chile, 2023)
- The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (Hong Kong/UK, 1974)
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Night House
- The Changeling
- The Endless
- Our favourite Cthulhu Mythos media
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!