“Murder is so 1987.”
Director: Nahnatchka Khan / Writers: David Matalon, Sasha Perl-Raver, Jen D’Angelo / Cast: Kiernan Shipka, Olivia Holt, Julie Bowen, Lochlyn Munro, Charlie Gillespie, Troy L. Johnson, Kelcey Mawema, Stephi Chin-Salvo, Anna Diaz, Liana Liberato, Ella Choi, Jeremy Monn-Djasngar, Nathaniel Appiah, Jonathan Potts, Randall Park.
Body Count: 7
Laughter Lines: “Let’s give it up for Angie, who wishes there were more people killed.”
Happy Death Day took the time-loop from Groundhog Day and put a masked killer in the mix; Freaky took the body swap from Freaky Friday and switched a teenage girl with a hulking psycho killer; and now Totally Killer takes the time machine from Back to the Future and throws a teen-hunting wackadoo at it.
Slasher films have been entrenched in an inflexible straitjacket of rules and tropes since forever, so this recent advent of pilfering major plot elements from big films and staple-gunning a teen slasher opus to it has made for a welcome mini-cycle of inventively comical ways to keep the genre from being stuck in its own loop of recycled motifs.
In the requisite suburban town of Vernon, 35 years have passed since the unsolved Sweet 16 Murders occurred: Three teen girls slain over a short period. Jamie’s mom Pam (Julie Bowen from Modern Family) was the only member of the clique not to meet the business end of a knife and has remained anxiously on edge ever since.
On Halloween night, Jamie revolts and heads off to a concert, leaving Pam to be attacked and killed by the maniac. Devastated, it’s a very fortunate coincidence that Jamie’s best friend Amelia is building a time machine in an old photobooth for her science fair project – and it works! Well, it works when the killer attacks Jamie and the action of the knife blade penetrating the device gives it the jolt required to zap the girl back to 1987, on the eve of the first murder… So far, so Marty McFly.
Intent on stopping the killer and thus saving her mom in the future, Jamie tries to blend in and befriend The Molly’s, a Mean Girls crew made up of the victims – and dear ol’ mom, all of whom are your typical John Hughes era rich bitches, along with their vapid boyfriends. Jamie tries to explain the situation to the cops, but as they’ve not yet seen Back to the Future, the concept is lost on them. Instead, Amelia’s mother Lauren, who first drew up the plans for the time machine, is instantly onboard.
While Lauren works out what they need to do to return Jamie to the 2020s, she continues to shadow the teen versions of her parents, the future high school principal, coach, sheriff and various others. Preventing the murders proves difficult though, as time just bends around her and changes it up, rewriting the future as it goes. Interestingly, characters in 2022 are able to sense the changes, with Sweet 16 Killer Tour Guide Chris seeing the adjustments manifest as Jamie runs interference in the past. A helpful ‘time is happening all at once’ explanation makes sense of all this, and is kinda zen.
Jamie manages to convince the others she’s psychic rather than explain the time travel thing, and the friends band together to try and trap the killer before he wipes the rest of them out, resulting in a great finale inside one of those Gravitron fairground rides where you pretty much get pinned to the wall of the spin dryer.
The plot was criticised for being too similar to The Final Girls, where a girl essentially time travels back to save her mother, although acting like that was the first film to build itself around this idea is about as productive as pointing out how much that one had to copy from Friday the 13th in order to function. The entire genre liberally steals from its contemporaries and just bends things to fit.
Maybe not quite as fun as Freaky, but definitely top tier inside it’s burgeoning sub-sub-genre. It’s a Wonderful Life has already been co-opted and changed to It’s a Wonderful Knife for the end of 2023, doubtlessly scattering other producers to hunt for tried and tested plots that they stir a dead teenager template into. Can’t wait.
Blurbs-of-interest: Liana Liberato was in Scream VI; Lochlyn Munro was also in The Tooth Fairy, Freddy vs Jason, Scary Movie, Hack!, and Initiation.