Totally Killer review: A decent slasher, but a great teen time travel option

Totally Killer - Courtesy Blumhouse / Amazon Prime
Totally Killer - Courtesy Blumhouse / Amazon Prime /

The slasher genre has been in decline for decades, barring the occasional surprise entry that revitalizes it for a few years. However, each revival works a little less than the ones before, making it difficult to be scared by them like audiences used to. But Prime Video‘s new time-travel slasher Totally Killer manages to do it right by homaging the classics, playing with fresh ideas, and defaulting to the mechanics of time travel when the horror can’t stand up on its own.

The film is perfect for fans of teen horror, starring Chilling Adventures of Sabrina‘s Kiernan Shipka, and while it’s not likely to be anybody’s favorite slasher movie, it’s definitely an enjoyable ride thanks to its dual premise. While most genre-bending movies fail at least one of their genres, Totally Killer keeps a good balance.

Marketing itself as Scream meets Back to the Future, Totally Killer put itself in a dangerous spot. Fans are ready to tear apart derivative works in both genres and getting the rules right can be hard to do either way. However, Totally Killer is generally successful in giving audiences a fun experience with the right balance of novelty and nostalgia.

Totally Killer isn’t the best slasher movie out there

Totally Killer follows Jamie Hughes, a teenage girl whose mother was the only survivor of a masked killer decades before. When the killer returns, Jamie ends up accidentally going back in time to just before the murders began. While there, she has two key tasks: stopping the killer and finding a way back home.

When it comes down to it, a movie like Totally Killer has to be discussed on three levels: as a slasher movie, as a time travel movie, and as an overall experience.

To be completely honest, Totally Killer isn’t the best slasher movie out there, and it isn’t even the best to come out this year. The body count is low and the kills are relatively lackluster, with little more creativity than a high number of stabs. However, that’s kind of the whole point of the movie.

The movie is quick to call out the absurdity of wanting more kills and more brutality when considering the victims as actual people, and it does a decent job with that premise. The side characters don’t have enough character development to make audiences overly sympathetic to them, but the trauma of Jamie (Shipka) and Pam (Olivia Holt) is fairly compelling.

The slasher plot is admittedly very similar to 2015’s The Final Girls, but there are a few elements that land significantly better in Totally Killer. For one, the climactic fight is a much better set piece in this movie, with the Quantum Drop Gravitron being both an emotion-fueled setting and a fun way to play with chase scenes and tension.

In addition, the movie does a great job playing with the idea that people today respond to serial killers very differently than they did in the 80s. The lack of DNA testing and national databases is a true and important piece of the puzzle, and true crime podcasts are a must when talking about modern massacres.

Finally, the self-defense shown by both Pam and Jamie feels very well grounded. Similar to Halloween (2018), Pam has been preparing to be attacked for decades. But rather than being fully consumed by that trauma, Pam has made sure she and her daughter have hand-to-hand combat skills and weapons at their disposal, which makes for some compelling fight sequences.

Totally Killer explores time travel as a river

Turning to the time travel elements of the film, the movie once again begins by lampshading itself with a comment that time travel movies never make sense. However, it picks a metaphor for how time travel works and sticks to it, with relative consistency.

Totally Killer explores time travel as a river: if you get in and change it upstream, the results will trickle downstream in turn. This gave them the ability to show the past and present simultaneously—an element very few time travel films are willing or able to do. This heightens the stakes for Jamie’s changes and sets up an interesting discussion of the Mandela Effect.

One other interesting element the movie introduces is that Jamie’s foreknowledge only works so well. As soon as she starts changing things, it messes with who gets killed and how. This is a great way to make the plot less formulaic, and it makes perfect sense! Major changes should change how events go down, and it’s refreshing to see a movie deal with the chaos that situation would bring.

The only problem comes when Jamie returns to the present. Her friend Lauren from 1987 remembers the adventure and updates her on the changes that have taken place, yet her parents don’t seem to notice that their daughter is identical to the random psychic exchange student from so many years before.

But to be fair, the same could be said for Back to the Future, and most people are willing to let that one go.

Is Totally Killer, as a whole, worth watching?

Finally, the question comes down to: is this movie as a whole enjoyable? The answer to that is, unquestionably, yes. If you hate slashers and time travel movies, this movie just isn’t for you. But if you love those genres, you will enjoy this film.

Probably the best part of the movie is its insistence on not lingering for too long on sentimentality. With its Heathers-style cluster of mean girls, Jamie can never stay upset or cautious for long before the movie kicks it back to humor.

As one of the best examples, Jamie begins the classic task of telling her past mother to appreciate her own mother more, but gets cut off with a truly great line from Olivia Holt: “I’m saying this as a friend. But nobody wants to hear you talk about how much you love your mom, okay?”

There are definitely lines that don’t land and jokes that just aren’t that funny, but the movie overall balances its genres well and manages the shifting tones with ease.

Verdict: “Totally Killer mashes genres masterfully, making for a fun Halloween watch for horror and non-horror fans alike.” 3.5/5

Totally Killer is streaming now on Prime Video.

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