Your Super Sweet Sixteen


Although I don’t think we can credit Happy Death Day with being the first slasher genre mash-up (specifically slapping the killing of slasher flicks up against the time-loop conceit of Groundhog Day) it was the film that made that whole concept popular. Since then we’ve had Freaky (slasher plus Freaky Friday), another Happy Death Day, the recently released It’s a Wonderful Knife (slasher plus It’s a Wonderful Life), and today’s subject, Totally Killer, which takes slasher movie tropes and slaps them into a Back to the Future-style, time travel adventure. What each of these films states, basically, is that just making a slasher film isn’t enough. You also have to find some new, weird twist to add in that keeps people interested.

We could spend a lot of time discussing whether a new twist on the material is needed or not. Certainly the most popular, and famous, reinvention of the slasher genre is Scream, which slapped meta-textual commentary on the slasher genre (after Wes Craven's New Nightmare did the same, of course). For better or worse (and fans will argue both sides of it), Scream changed the game and suddenly all the old slashers just weren’t going to be able to continue in the new era. You can’t just kill teens; now you have to have a twist, and the biggest, and most popular films to come out since then have found their own twists to explore.

Totally Killer came out in September 2023 and was released by Amazon PrimeWhile Netflix might be the largest streaming seervice right now, other major contenders have come into the game. One of the biggest, and best funded, is Amazon Prime, the streaming-service add-on packing with free delivery and all kinds of other perks Amazon gives its members. And, with the backing of its corporate parent, this streaming service very well could become the market leader.. It didn’t get a theatrical release at all, so there aren’t hard numbers for use to use for comparison, but the direct-to-streaming film does have an 87% score on Rotten Tomatoes, if that means anything at all. Those scores can be gamed, and even reviews themselves feel subjective. A film can do well in reviews but tank at the Box Office, and I’m honestly not certain which way that would have gone for Totally Killer. The film is fun, but I’m not sure it really hits the notes I’d expect from a genre mash-up like this. It’s not as bloody as I’d expect from a slasher flick, and it doesn’t really spend as much time exploring the 1980s as it should (except to make tongue in cheek references). This could be a slasher made at any time, really, set in any decade, and it would feel about the same. In short, it’s a film still trying to figure out how much of a time travel or slasher adventure it wants to be, and it splits the difference to not quite be either.

Jamie Hughes (Kiernan Shipka) is the daughter of a slasher survivor, Pam Hughes (Julie Bowen). Pam was the only girl in a friend group to escape with their life back in 1987. There the Sweet 16 Killer took out three girls – Tiffany Clark, Marisa Song, and Heather Hernandez – each killed on the night of their 16th birthday, each stabbed 16 times. Ever since, Pam has been worried about the killer (who was never caught) coming back, and she’s been over-protective of Jamie as well. Jamie has bristled at this, fighting with her mom over petty things just to stake her independence. But when the Sweet 16 Killer does come back, and finishes the job by murdering Pam, suddenly Jamie wants to find a way to set things right and get the killer.

Thankfully her best friend, Amelia Creston (Kelcey Mawema), has invented a time machine (based on the notes from her own mom’s journal)... if only she could get it working. When the Sweet 16 Killer comes from Jamie at an amusement park, he misses her but stabs the console of the machine. This gets it working, and it sends Jamie back to 1987. Now, stuck here until she can find a way to make the machine work again, Jamie realizes she has a chance to change things. She can catch the killer here, in the past, and save the girls he murdered. But making changes could have consequences, and Jamie might just spin the timeline far out beyond anything she could predict. Maybe even changing whether or not she even exists at all…

As a time travel film, the time travel itself is all very silly. “Oh, yeah, I just so happened to be able to build a time machine from some notes my mom made,” is the whole of the discussion in the film. Anyone that knows anything about the concept of time travel knows that it would take more than just a few scribbles in the journal of a 16 year old, and even then the technological marvel would make them absolutely famous. And yes she’s showing it off in a high school science fair because that’s what’s going on at the amusement park. Not making multiple billions of dollars on the idea, just a science fair. It’s no more silly than Back to the Future or Hot Tub Time Machine, of course, but you have to be prepared for that. “This is just what we’re doing, so go with it.”

I don’t want that to seem like a knock. A silly film exploring time travel and enjoying the 1980s can work. It’s called Hot Tub Time Machine. I’m certainly all for another film exploring those same ideas but from a female perspective, and having it set within the bounds of a slasher film would work on that front as well. The victims in slashers are usually women, so flipping things around to save them, while also enjoying, the 1980s, seems like a fun mash up of ideas. But Totally Killer doesn’t quite know how to pull all of that off, making for a film that feels tonally all over the place. We go from serious moments when the killer strikes to tongue-in-cheek moments, like the reveal of the time machine, and the film never makes it feel cohesive or consistent.

I think of the two sides of the film I would have preferred if the movie could have settled into the slasher scares better. These are, honestly, pretty lackluster. The killer shows up, with a knife, pins the girl down and then stabs them a bunch. He’s a one-trick pony, like many killers, but that does wear thin quickly. It would have been nice to have some variety in the kills (and not have his M.O. set out at the start of the film with his sixteen stabs each time). It also would have been nice to have more gore, blood, and scares for the kills, as most of the time the killer comes in, we barely see him work, and then the job is done. That’s not really interesting at all.

Although, really, the time travel conceit does ruin the scares as well. We learn all about the Sweet 16 killings at the start of the film and then Jamie uses her knowledge of those kills to predict where the killer will be. Yes, her actions can influence things to an extent, but she (and we) still know where the killer will be and who they are targeting. It sucks a lot of the suspense out of the scenes when we already know the when and the who of it all. Yes, sure, the killer’s identity is a secret, but even then the mystery doesn’t feel that mysterious. I basically guessed the final reveal of the killer by the mid-point of the movie because there were only so many choices that made sense given the cast and the setup of the film.

The humor of the film is amusing at times, but here it feels like the film is trying a little too hard. Shipka played Sally Draper on Mad Men, and that was a series that had a lot of fun poking at the accepted behaviors of the era (like smoking, drinking, spanking kids, littering in public places, etc.). Most of the humor in Totally Killer comes from Shipka’s Jamie seeing people in the 1980s doing something that doesn’t make sense to her 2023 brain, and then calling them out on it. While it is amusing it also feels like a retread of material Shipka has already done before. If it were a different actress in the lead role maybe the humor would play better but I couldn’t divorce the actress from her body of work here and it did make the jokes feel tired at times. And, it should be noted, this is ninety percent of the humor in the movie.

As for the 1980s aesthetic of the rest of the film, it’s pretty throwaway. The fashion doesn’t feel too over-the-top in its period trappings. The music isn’t outrageously 1980s, not like in Hot Tub Time Machine (to keep going back to that example). Heck, the sets all feel the same between 1987 and 2023 in the film, with barely anything building that felt like it belongs in one period over the other. About the only thing that felt like it was really set in the 1980s is that the younger Pam (played by Olivia Holt) and her friends are all bullies in a group called the “Mollys”. They love Molly Ringwald and all dress like her. This is both a reference to that Brat Pack actress as well as an obvious reference to Heathers, but even then the film doesn’t really follow up on this for any real jokes or emotional insight down the road in the story. It’s just kind of… there.

Bear in mind I didn’t hate Totally Killer. I found it to be mildly enjoyable, a passable film to watch on streaming in between other things I was doing. But that’s really the highest praise I can give it: it’s passable. Shipka is a great actress who, since Mad Men, seems to keep getting cast in stuff that barely suits her range and talents (looking at you, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina). This film, like so many other projects she’s been in, is largely carried on her talent while the project stutters around. It’s fun at times, amusing in places, and it got a few laughs out of me. It’s not a film, however, that I expect to go back to, not like other, better time travel comedies or slasher flicks. In not really managing to straddle both genres well Totally Killer failed to nail either and comes away feeling like less than the sum of its parts.