To put it in a totally reductive context, Totally Killer (2023) combines David Gordon Green’s Halloween (2018) with Back To The Future (1985) in order to simultaneously cash-in on 80s nostalgia, à la Stranger Things, while scrutinizing that same nostalgia from a politically correct standpoint. Totally Killer is a horror-comedy that attempts to look at its genre roots while still playing by genre rules. Of course, like any horror-comedy, its success or failure is completely dependent upon how the film balances these two impulses.
A lot of Totally Killer works once Kiernan Shipka has gone back in time to 1987. In getting her there, the filmmakers clumsily stumble through a series of familiar tropes and plenty of derivative sci-fi babble to explain how a high school student could build and operate a working time machine. There’s no Christopher Lloyd to personify the “mad scientist” type and function as a kind of genre short hand so Totally Killer must work doubly hard at setting up and selling its premise. Ultimately the script proves inadequate at this so it becomes a matter of how much the viewer in invested in the wunderkind Kelcey Mawema.
Once Totally Killer gets back to the eighties things begin to come together. The cast has great chemistry and director Nahnatchka Khan proves just as adept at scaring audiences as she is at making them laugh. The only significant problem is that the jokes that call-out the misogyny and general “otherness” of life in the eighties are far too plentiful and on the nose. Again and again Totally Killer points to the culture of the eighties only to observe how “wild” things were.
Eighties culture exists in Totally Killer as little more than a problematic fetish object. This distillation of an era to a few casual hardly nuanced observations tends to be the shortcoming of all time travel comedies. Nothing about the evoked period feels tangible or at all complex but rather like some old tumblr feed dedicated to a kind of debilitating nostalgia. It’s easy to point and laugh or criticize something if no effort has been put into understanding that which is to be represented, even in a reductive form.
Ultimately it is this failure to understand eighties culture and present it complexly that undermines the overall spectacle of Totally Killer. Totally Killer deals in a very plastic version of the eighties that is too committed to selling the threat of its slasher to embrace the pre-requisite camp necessary to sell genre artifice as a legitimate means of expression. Instead the bold gestures of political correctness and a child’s notion of eighties culture renders Totally Killer a tepid film more akin to a Disney Halloween television film than a great horror-comedy.