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“Halloween” gets mashed up with “Back to the Future” in the totally cheeky and knowing “Totally Killer.”
This tricky genre mix from director Nahnatchka Khan (“Always Be My Maybe,” “Fresh Off the Boat”) is a fish-out-of-water comedy filled with amusing one-liners combined with time-travel sci-fi that actually kinda makes sense. If anything, the horror element of this horror movie is the weakest part, but “Totally Killer” is spry enough to remain enjoyable throughout.
That’s mostly because of the enormously engaging presence of Kiernan Shipka, who has a natural way with zippy dialogue and the dramatic chops to navigate some tough tonal shifts. The script from David Matalon & Sasha Perl-Raver, and Jen D’Angelo requires the “Mad Men” star to evolve from surly teen to grief-stricken daughter to intrepid investigator, and she pulls it all off with aplomb.
It's Halloween night, 2023, and Shipka’s Jamie Hughes is getting ready to go out with her friends. Her overprotective mother, Pam (Julie Bowen), is naturally concerned about her daughter’s safety: Thirty-five years ago, around Halloween, three teenage girls were slaughtered, and the so-called Sweet Sixteen Killings have defined this small town ever since. But when Jamie accidentally gets transported back to 1987 in a time machine, she realizes she can stop the murders and fix history.
Or so she thinks. One of the running bits in “Totally Killer” is that nobody believes Jamie when she tries to warn them, including the town’s amusingly useless sheriff (Khan’s frequent star Randall Park). Culture shock moments flummox this modern young woman, from casual misogyny to constant smoking. But these observations have enough specificity to elevate them beyond a predictable sense of: “The ‘80s, amirite?” “Totally Killer” also offers an array of hits that deviate from the kinds of songs we often hear in movies from this era, from Bananarama’s “Venus” to Echo and the Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon” to “Let the Music Play” by Shannon.
Jamie must insinuate herself with the would-be victims as well as the teenage version of her mom, whom she’s shocked to learn was their best friend and mean-girl ringleader. Olivia Holt is superbly cast as young Pam, not only because she resembles Bowen so much but also because she’s adept at both the comedy and the cruelty required of her character. Big hair and Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers abound as Jamie tries to explain what will happen to these people, based on horror movie tropes, if they don’t listen to her. And they don’t.
“Totally Killer” makes a couple of inspired choices in the storytelling. It actually flashes back to the future, if you’ll pardon the pun, to let us know what’s happening in the present day while Jamie is stuck in 1987 (although a subplot involving a murder podcast feels obvious and one-note). It also takes a pointed, clear-eyed look at the insularity of small-town life and how peaking in high school can leave people trapped in a place, and in the past. These characters know everything about each other because they’ve been in one another’s orbit forever. Shipka’s deadpan astonishment cuts through the false nostalgia of the notion that the ‘80s were simpler and superior.
Besides, there’s no time for that—there’s a killer on the loose, and Jamie has to stop him. This is actually the least interesting part of “Totally Killer,” as the slasher scenes aren’t staged, shot, or cut with a whole lot of finesse. A stabbing in a waterbed, for example, is sloppy in every way. The identity and motive of the murderer are never as compelling as the resourceful final girl who saves the day, and the decade.
On Prime Video now.
Kiernan Shipka as Jamie
Olivia Holt as Teen Pam Miller
Julie Bowen as Adult Pam
Kelcey Mawema as Amelia
Randall Park as Sheriff Dennis Lim
Lochlyn Munro as Adult Blake Hughes
Charlie Gillespie as Teen Blake Hughes
Stephi Chin-Salvo as Marisa Song