2023 | rated R | starring Kiernan Shipka, Olivia Holt, Randall Park, Julie Bowen | directed by Nahnatchka Khan | 1h 46m |
35 years ago on Halloween night, The Sweet Sixteen Killer murdered 3 high schoolers and made Jamie Hughes’ (Kiernan Shipka) town infamous and this year he’s struck again. Thankfully, Jamie’s friend Amalia (Kelcey Mawema) has turned a carnival photo booth into a time machine and when the killer goes for Jamie, she is able to whisk back to the 80s to try to stop the terror from ever starting, a task that proves more difficult as Jamie meets her teenage mother (Olivia Holt) and their pack of mean girls who appear intent on cluelessly walking into danger at every turn.
With Freaky and Happy Death Day, writer/director Christopher Landon made the horror-comedy genre mashup look easy, effortlessly turning high concept teen fantasy films into slasher movies. The clunky Totally Killer is here to prove it’s not. From a messy, over-stuffed screenplay wrangled in by Nahnatchka Khan, the movie wears it’s time-travel and slasher influences on it’s sleeve, but fails to get out from under them other than it’s light/bright visuals and insufferable 2023 commentary.
Hanging a lantern on it. It’s the old comedy term for deliberately calling attention to what you’re doing with the joke. Explaining the joke. People have a lot of problems with Woke entertainment. Emphasis on diversity over stories and characters is part of it; Political correctness is part of it; but the thing the undercurrent to all of modern studio writing is a condescending view of the audience as being stupid backward rubes. They collide with “fans” on this over and over, but the truth seems to be they think anyone watching their product is stupid and needs the jokes explained to them. And so, Totally Killer is ripe with fish-out-of-water humor where the coddled and safety-oriented Jamie is thrust back into the world of the 80s – a metal playground of pervasive smoking, vicious dodgeball, mean girls, Indian mascots and sexist comments. The problem with this movie is that at every one of those turns, Jamie is used as a writer-insert to make it clear to the audience that they certainly don’t condone such behavior and will stop the movie cold to call it out as racist, sexist or dangerous at every turn. Joke meets Lantern.
This is a movie that wears it’s own unoriginality on it’s sleeve, calling out all of it’s other movie influences so you don’t have to. If you’re thinking it’s Back to the Future meets Scream, Jamie will name drop both films before it’s all over. This is the kind of story that puts a lot of disparate ingredients into a cocktail, hits blend while also telling us that none of those ingredients actually matter because the real point is just over here out of eye sight. Slasher elements don’t work, it’s really about Jamie’s journey. Jamie is a flat character who doesn’t go on much of a journey, hey, look how gory the slasher stuff is. The sci-fi story is silly, look at the 80s satire. 80s satire is grating and obvious, hey it’s just a time travel movie.
While stylistically almost identical, Totally Killer stands a complete mirror image to a movie like Happy Death Day 2U. A movie that mixes comedy, teen angst, horror and time travel, where it all works together and it all matters. In contrast to the gung-ho terrific performance of Jessica Rothe in Happy Death Day 2U, as well as Kathryn Newton having a blast in Freak, Shipka doesn’t have a lot to work with and can’t do anything with what she’s got.
The real surprise twist behind Totally Killer is that it reveals what has been unspoken about Hollywood’s 80s fixation for the last decade or so. Movies have been grasping to fulfill millennial 80s nostalgia in a lot of ways, but they don’t love the 80s. They love John Carpenter movies. Synth wave. Grungy slasher flicks. But the 80s that we lived in, they hate that.