Horror is for the teens. A certain kind of horror always has been. That’s a necessary thing for some horror movies every year to be. In the ’80s, that was rendered into largely cynical focus until the Scream and MTVization of horror that happened in the ’90s. The aesthetics of horror began to match the other cultures that teenagers consumed. That two-decade run was a pretty sweet deal. Because this critic came of age for that sort of thing right at the end of this phase — the post-9/11 fears of teens must have been about something else than frothy teen slashers, cause that subgenre vanished overnight — I’ve spent the rest of my life longing for a comeback for these simpler times until, within the last five years, or so, the teenage-marketed horror movie has reemerged, mostly out of the Blumhouse horror factory. In some pleasant way, Totally Killer has a tagline that perfectly captures what I want: a string of murders in a small town must be resolved when a modern girl time-warps into the past. The movie neatly situates itself between the historic usage of the teen slasher and the modern impetus to reclaim that glory.
Olivia Holt stars as Pam, whose mother has just been murdered in cold blood, and now the Sweet Sixteen Killer is after her, sporting a mask with coifed hair and a deceptively handsome ’80s-Kiefer Sutherland facial structure. She tries to give the killer a slip at the local amusement park and hides away in a photo booth. When found, the killer gets stabby and knives the photo booth, causing a time-travel event which brings Pam back to her mom’s ’80s, back at the source where these killings had just begun.
Totally Killer has one prominent idea about how to handle the culture shock of slipping back into time. Pam is a strong advocate for human rights and most people in the ’80s were problematic by a modern standard, or any standard of decency. Even Pam’s mom, she finds out, was a deeply problematic high schooler, as Pam tries to infiltrate her mom’s friend group of Molly Ringwald aspirants.
The good advantage Pam has is that ’80s culture continues to resonate in modern times. She can use the brand-new touchstones of Back to the Future (1985), among other cultural artifacts, to relate to and get through to the other girls. What the excellent Happy Death Day (2017) was to Groundhog Day (1993), then, we can say Totally Killer wants to be for Back to the Future. That’s a heavy burden to wear for a straight-to-streaming release, this being part of Blumhouse’s horror-for-television division, and not one of their flagship releases, like this month’s The Exorcist: Believer.
Director Nahnatchka Khan is sure to play into the very televisual tropes of the teen movie, those born more from the Disney Channel than from the Friday the 13th lexicon. Her movie is good about playing it light, in a way that streaming movies do, where you can imagine a teenager second-screening Tik-Tok while consuming this as background entertainment. It does not have so many background details that it could interrupt any other activity and you know this story in enough incarnations that you can’t possibly miss a beat.
So maybe it all feels a bit rote and pedestrian when it all basically goes down how you think it will. There are some evident stakes. Pam needs to figure out the past so her mom does not get murdered in the future. But she seems generally unfussed and carries seemingly no trauma at all, considering her grave situation. She just needs to go have her teen romp in this confused and deeply offensive timeline and maybe she can rescue a group of girls that were originally murdered by this Sweet Sixteen Killer, but it also doesn’t seem like too much trouble if she doesn’t save them all.
The script has to post through all the things you expect a character to do when shifted back in time. Despite baldly admitting the Back to the Future influence, the film doesn’t quite learn the lessons that its inspiration had already solved about this kind of time travel movie. It gets stuck for too long, probably, on plot contrivances and the characters seem more interested in the apparent generational differences than they do in the impending murders but the filmmakers are also more focused on those aspects.
We get the kind of movie that was made for teens when we stopped making cool and bloody slashers for them, after-school programming, but now it has a little more blood and just a little slashing. There aren’t really any surprising kills or plot developments, nor any sufficiently clever moments of character development, even given the broad opportunities afforded by the time-traveling mechanics. The film settles for ideas that have already been done better elsewhere. It couldn’t really have had a run in theaters, as there’s just not enough meat on the bones, so it at least feels right at home on streaming, where it’s moderately more interesting than the checkbox-filling movies that largely occupy these services.