"I Wanted Him to Be a Suspect." How Totally Killer Uses Pop Culture to Hide Its Mystery
“I want you to immediately be like, ‘It's him. It's him.’”
Totally Killer is a pop culture-laden film that isn’t afraid to get meta for the sake of a good reference. The movie follows Jamie (Kiernan Shipka), a young teen transported back to 1987 to protect her mother from a serial killer and possibly change her future. But notably, Lochlyn Munro, best known for playing Hal Cooper, Betty’s serial killer father in Riverdale, plays the adult version of Jamie’s father, casting immediate suspicion on him. According to writer/director Nahnatchka Khan, that’s entirely purposeful.
“That's exactly why I was so excited to cast him because I wanted him to be a suspect,” Khan tells Inverse. “I want you to immediately be like, ‘It's him. It's him.’”
Once Jamie goes into the past, another pop culture reference helps Jamie navigate her world: Back to the Future. The movie explains Jamie’s predicament exactly, making it easy to communicate with the 1987 crowd.
“It's been out for two years, so it's not Oppenheimer, she's not going to go to the chalkboard and explain how time travel works and break down the quantum mechanics,” Khan says. “She can be like, ‘have you seen Back to the Future?’ and just use our pop culture references as a way to kind of bridge a lot of that storytelling device.”
Khan discusses what makes a great cinematic serial killer, Totally Killer’s unique ending, and the Harry Styles references that were left on the cutting room floor.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Warning! Spoilers for Totally Killer ahead!
What makes a good slasher movie, in your opinion?
A huge part of it is the mask, for sure. I think you have to have an iconic slasher mask that just at once feels like, “Oh, I've seen this before, but it's new.” That familiar but terrifying idea. That was a big element.
I'm a horror fan, I love all kinds of horror, like demon possession and supernatural and all that stuff. But the thing about slashers specifically is when there's a real person amongst everybody, somebody who's violent and dangerous. That's also an element that I appreciate: the “somebody here is a madman.”
What makes a good time-travel movie?
I like the connection between past and present very much, so I have to be invested in that journey. So you're not going back in time to do something mega-important, but you're going back in time to do something that affects you and your family.
I love the multiverse too, like in Everything Everywhere All At Once, where there are a million of us existing on multiple planes. There's a lot to like.
Could you explain the notebook Jamie receives at the end of the movie?
Jamie’s friend, who has lived now 35 years waiting for her, has prepared this notebook for her of everything that's different. She has to guess at some things, but really it's her just trying to tell Jamie what has changed, or Jamie thinks is different, like how she has a 34-year-old brother now who has her name because she failed at having her parents not hook up.
There are whole sections that we came up with for the notebook that isn't in the movie because it was just too long. There was some random stuff in there, for sure. We had a whole section devoted to Harry Styles for some reason, how his career has changed because of what Jamie has done. It was somehow linked to her changing Killer Instinct, which is the band at the beginning, to A Waterbed Away.
Did it keep Zayn from leaving One Direction or is that inevitable?
That's inevitable. That was always going to happen.
You’ve made a career in comedy. How do you adjust to something with such a dark subject matter?
I think it's finding just the humanity in it. It's the humanity that lets you laugh at something and lets you care about somebody. So for me, this was just five clicks over into the darkness, I would say. But I think the best comedy comes from that place anyway. It's just about looking at it from a skewed perspective.
What's your all-time favorite horror movie?
How crazy would it be if I said my own movie? There are so many, but I always come back to The Conjuring. I think the first Conjuring to me is one of the best movies. For some reason I find it so beautiful: the way it takes its time with the setup, the way the scares are unfolding, Lili Taylor, I just love it.
Totally Killer is now streaming on Prime Video.