The past few years have brought a handful of fantastic horror-comedies that have really hit home with fans. Films like Happy Death Day, Freaky and Tragedy Girls have delivered stories and characters that we connect with, along with the requisite blood and body count that we all crave. Fantastic Fest closed another wonderful year with a new comedy that is definitely going to be a crowd-pleaser. Totally Killer is a massively fun film that keeps you laughing until the end.
At first glance, the small town of Vernon seems like any small town. And it is, really. Except for that triple murder that took place in 1988, of course. Three teenage girls were viciously killed within days of one another, and the masked killer was never caught. But the town remembers. Every year there are people out trick or treating in the guise of the killer and there is even a true crime podcast dedicated to trying to break down and solve the cold case. The ghastly news story has turned into local legend over the years, and like many legends, has become a part of the tapestry of the town itself.
This year, on the 35th anniversary of the original murders, the killer suddenly returns. He breaks into the home of a long-time resident and murders her in the same way he killed the teenagers decades ago. Her daughter Jamie (Kiernan Shipka) is devastated, and travels back through time to 1988 to try to prevent the original murders from taking place, thereby saving her mom in the present day.
Oh, did that part catch you off guard? Yes, this is a time-traveling slasher comedy. And yes, it’s pretty great. All of those elements do work together, and honestly, they work pretty damn well. I’ll admit that at first, the time travel concept is a teeny bit jarring. Possibly because it feels like that type of plot point would be more at home in a movie for younger audiences. Something more like Goosebumps - ‘tween horror, rather than adult slasher. But honestly, it doesn’t take long to get onboard with the premise, and once you do, it’s a great ride.
Jamie’s journey to the 1980s offers a lot of opportunities for comedic and thoughtful moments that examine the many differences between Gen X and Gen Z. The script (from David Matalon, Sasha Perl-Raver and Jen D’Angelo) wisely avoids the cheap and easy humor. We don’t waste time riffing on the clothes and the big hair. A lot of the humor is based around the cultural differences in these generations; the things they value and the ways in which they express themselves.
As a genre mash-up the film does a great job in bringing each element to the table, but not allowing itself to lean too hard in any one direction. It deftly avoids a lot of pitfalls inherent in these subgenres. As a horror comedy, it’s great. It’s lighter fare, but it carries a lot of charm. It’s definitely a slasher film and never ever skimps on the blood, but the comedy takes a lot of the suspense down a level and lets us move easily from moment to moment, without things ever getting too terribly dark.
As a time travel movie, it takes an interesting path. The film acknowledges up front that changes made to the past will absolutely affect the future. But it doesn’t wait until the end to show us just what those changes are. We cut back and forth between 1988 and 2023 and we can see in real time just how the story is changing as Jamie tries to stop the killer. It’s a great narrative choice that keeps the story dynamic and takes out the predictability of knowing what the future will be.
This is a lot to balance, but director Nahnatchka Khan handles it all beautifully. The time travel and the slasher pieces keep the plot moving and the comedy keeps everything light and high energy. And the cast is excellent. I’ve never seen Kiernan Shipka play this funny before and she really nails it. She also handles the more emotional aspects of the script well, giving Jamie’s mother’s death the weight that it needs to drive the story forward.
Totally Killer is a blast. Despite the tragic premise of the story, it never takes things too seriously and it is perfectly happy to give you an entertaining ride. It’s bloody enough for horror fans, but it will absolutely play for a non-horror audience as well. There’s a lot to love about the story and the humor, and it 100% delivers on the fun.
Movie Score: 4/5