For all the scary monsters and skeevy killers synonymous with horror, nostalgia may be the real specter haunting the genre. The past few years have seen the endless resurgence of warmed-over franchises like Halloween and Scream — even Pet Sematary is getting its own reappraisal. While there are definitely some hidden gems, not every horror property seems destined for second chances. Sometimes it’s best to leave things in the era they’re from — or, at the very least, try to meet them where they’re at.
Amazon and Blumhouse’s Totally Killer takes that advice literally. It’s the latest in a modest pool of time-traveling slasher films, after 2015’s The Final Girls and sleeper hit Happy Death Day. Rather than transporting its heroine into a fictional horror movie world, though, or making her relive her own death, Totally Killer turns the clock back to the 1987. In the small town on Vernon, three 16-year-old girls were murdered by the same killer, each stabbed a wincing 16 times. While the “Sweet 16 Killer” disappeared shortly after the murders, their killing spree lives on through a tactless true-crime podcast, and in the memories of those who survived.
The Chilling Adventures of Sabina’s Kiernan Shipka is Jamie, an edgy teen that’s perpetually embarrassed by her parents’ entirely justifiable trauma. Her mom Pam (Julie Bowen) narrowly survived the ‘87 murders, and she’s spent the past 35 years preparing for the killer’s imminent return. Jamie doesn’t share that sentiment: after all, it’s 2023. Serial killers may be lionized more than they’ve ever been before, but the world is totally a safer place than it was in the ‘80s. That is, at least, until the Sweet 16 Killer does make a comeback — and makes Jamie their next target.
When the killer corners Jamie at her school science fair, she hunkers down in her best friend Amelia’s (Kelcey Mawema) time-travel machine. Until now, no one expected the prototype to work — but in Jamie’s hour of need, it actually transports her to 1987. It’s just a few short days before the Sweet 16 murders took place, and Jamie is determined to stop them before she returns home. Armed with an intimate knowledge of how it all went down, she sets off to catch the killer. Her quest will even see her team up with a teenaged Pam (Olivia Holt), but as she gets closer to her 16-year-old mom and and her doomed trio of friends, Jamie comes face-to-face with something much scarier than a serial killer: mean girls.
Totally Killer relishes in chances to skewer the ‘80s at every turn: Jamie’s repulsion to the era’s every faux pas supplies the film with some of its funniest moments, and the reign of terror that Pam and her crew of bullies wreak over the school invokes Heathers and the entire John Hughes oeuvre. The film does have the tendency to namedrop a few far-better movies in its attempts at satire, and the abundance of winks and nods can distract from the actual scares at play — but Totally Killer is definitely prioritizing comedy over horror, and that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
Compared to Blumhouse’s most recent teen-focused slashers, Totally Killer is definitely the tamer of the bunch. It feels a bit like a Disney Channel Original spliced with Scream, and with House of Mouse alums like Olivia Holt in hilarious supporting turns, it’s certainly a fitting comparison. Shipka is, as always, great as the bewildered time traveler. She delivers even the most lackluster zingers with a well-honed sarcastic edge, but makes plenty of room for heartfelt moments between Jamie and Pam. Everyone’s having a lot of fun in Totally Killer; this cast is more than enough to keep the film from sagging beneath the weight of its many in-jokes.
There’s a sense that it could have committed a bit more to its gaudy ‘80s aesthetic, or tried to diverge from its many influences. But Totally Killer isn’t exactly trying to reinvent the wheel, and it shouldn’t have to. In our IP-obsessed modern age, there are worse sins than being derivative. Besides, spooky season’s only just begun, so there’s plenty of room for another silly slasher on the watchlist this year.