It’s always refreshing when a filmmaker takes a risk, and it pays off. That is what cinema is: a risk. On one hand, you can try and make a great film, and it might turn out to be a pretentious bore. On the other hand, there is just too much money riding on the film for you to be having all the fun without worrying about the final product. Totally Killer, directed by Nahnatchka Khan, is one of those films that did take risks and, within the given budget, managed to be a wacky film that really caters to a large part of the audience. Broadly, this has to fall under the horror-comedy genre, but believe it or not, this is as much a sci-fi film as it is a horror or a comedy. The risks are not too obvious, but this combination of genres usually does not gel very well. There are some unusual hits here and there, but generally, the films where there is a mix of several genres are reduced to having niche audiences in the cult classic categories.
What works in Totally Killer is the combination of style and substance. The story begins by describing the serial killings that ravaged the small town of Vernon 35 years ago. In the very beginning itself, the film introduces us to the ‘Sweet 16 Killer’, a masked murderer who resurfaces and kills the protagonist’s mother. Usually, this is the territory of a pure scary movie. But the movie’s dialogue and the reason why the killer is named Sweet 16 clearly state to us that the film is not taking itself too seriously. The comedy is amplified through a sci-fi plot when Jamie Hughes, daughter of the latest victim of the Sweet 16 Killer, time travels back to the year 1987 and has to stop the killer so that her mother survives in the present day. Think Wes Craven meets Robert Zemeckis, and the tone will be clear. In fact, the film doesn’t shy away from mentioning Zemeckis’ 1985 film Back to the Future. The meta aspect of the film only makes it more enjoyable because the writing ensures that the characters don’t start sounding smarter than the audience.
What about dumbness? Slashers are invariably dumb, in a way. That’s the secret ingredient. Totally Killer shines in this aspect. The characters are so cleverly written, and such a great milieu is chosen that the characters’ dumbness comes organically, weaving itself together with the characters’ genuine panic. Writers David Matalon and Sasha Perl-Raver have a sense of where to stop with the silliness. Nahnatchka Khan has such control over the scenes in the beginning that the foundation helps the film go off in multiple directions. The film doesn’t get too lost in style, which gives us enough time to process what is happening. The familiarity and the nostalgic trip with the sci-fi twist add a charm to the film and save those scenes in the middle of the story from just being a set up for the third act.
There is incorporation of ‘wokeness’ in the narrative, which could have been a weak point, but ultimately, the performance by the actors is such that several phrases sound cute rather than a ‘point’ being driven home by the writers. There is a comparison of sorts between America in the eighties and what it is today. A lot of humor comes in moments when Jamie experiences cultural shocks after going into the eighties. These are the scenes that loosen the grip a bit when enveloping the film with the suspense of the slasher genre. There is no real pressure and it doesn’t seem to keep at it with the writing also favoring the sci-fi comedy aspect in the middle. The character of Jamie, played by Kiernan Shipka, does not have the urgency that would normally be assumed when someone is trying to run away from a killer or stopping them from killing their mother. It’s a balancing act, and what the film loses in the middle it mostly makes up for in the end. Although the vague time travel scheme did tilt more towards lazy writing than being a strong plot point. There are definite pacing issues in between the killings, but the film as a whole is so fun, with the optimum amount of dumb, that Totally Killer fares well, balancing the horror and the comedy.
Having Jamie basically act out the Marty McFly narrative from Back to the Future, the film makes the point that certain iconic plots can be interwoven with the tropes of completely opposite genres and yet not be a pastiche. A completely new collage is created with its own exciting logic. The casting is on point, and Kiernan is the right kind of smart, polite, and feisty for the film. There is the “Modern Family” star Julie Bowen in the film as well, playing Jamie’s mother. Having a known face helps, as we immediately kill her within the first five minutes (after a kickass action sequence), which sets up a pinching feeling as if the star had died even before the film could properly begin. The gory elements are extremely judiciously used. They give the film the much-needed ominous quality to maintain the slasher’s integrity. The ‘cabin in the woods’ sub genre also found its way into the film, but never for once did the film feel like it was outstretching its original idea.
Totally Killer is the result of conscientious writing and direction that knows the frame it is playing in. The eighties world is especially well recreated, with the costumes and the architecture all working together to evoke that feel of that decade. The same cannot be said about the 2023 timeline. The background score does work in most places, but the film couldn’t find the definitive score that could be associated with the blend of the three genres. With decent performances and enough attention to detail when it came to world-building and choosing the right milieu for the film, Totally Killer is a nice experiment of blending subgenres together, and if the result is this refreshing (without getting reduced to being a parody), I would suggest that there be more of such films as they totally slay!