This article contains minorTotally Killer spoilers.
A young woman lays back on a waterbed, playfully tossing double entendres at her boyfriend. The sounds of “Lady in Red” by Chris De Burgh leak into the room from the party outside, adding an air of mystery to the masked man who emerges from the shadows. Still ready for sex, the young woman teases the masked man about his disguise, but when he doesn’t respond, she realizes that he’s not her boyfriend.
The masked man produces a knife and begins stabbing her stomach, pushing her back down onto the waterbed. Springs stream from the liquidy mattress, and blood splatters on Sears Portrait Studio glam pictures hanging on the wall.
If that description sounds like it comes from a slasher flick from the 1980s, then director Nahnatchka Khan achieved her goal. Her Blumhouse film Totally Killer follows a masked killer in 1987, borrowing a lot of the iconography from the greats of the era. But even as it does its best to invoke ‘80s slasher movies, Totally Killer misses the heart of the genre. Or, more accurately, Totally Killer has too much heart, and too much production value, making it far too slick and sincere to feel like a proper ‘80s stab-a-thon.
The Cheap Thrills of ‘80s Slashers
To understand the difference between Totally Killer and actual slashers of the ‘80s, compare the scene above to a similar kill sequence in the 1982 Spanish-American flick, Pieces. Directed by Juan Piquer Simón, Pieces features a killer dressed in black who murders young co-eds and tears them apart, hoping to recreate a nudie puzzle he loved as a child—back when he was raised by a repressive mother.
Late in the film, student Sylvia (Isabel Luque) finds herself trapped in a room with a waterbed. The killer suddenly enters and pushes her onto the bed, stabbing her with a butcher knife. Simón cuts between close-ups of the masked killer or the screaming Sylvia and extreme close-ups of the knife puncturing her body. While there’s no sex in the scene, Sylvia was nude not more than 10 minutes earlier, and her first line of dialogue is “the most beautiful thing in the world is smoking pot and fucking on a waterbed at the same time.” Simón keeps that subtext in plain sight, training the camera to see up her dress as she kicks in pain during her death scene. The sequence ends with a close-up of the knife going through the back of Sylvia’s head, with the pointing protruding from her open mouth.
To be clear, the murder scene in Pieces, like nearly every other part of the film, is riddled with problems, technical, moral, gendered, and otherwise. Sylvia has no plot reason to go to the room this late at night. The flat, uninspired shots of her walking through an empty house and to her death room drag on, stifling tension instead of building it. And the mix of sexual titillation and violent murder felt gross at the time, and even more so today.
The same can be said of most ‘80s slasher flicks. Although the genre existed before, in the form of Italian Giallo and proto-slashers like Psycho (1960) and Black Christmas (1973), it exploded with the success of Friday the 13th in 1980. Explicitly designed to piggyback on the success of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th made nearly $60 million on a $550,000 budget in 1980. The studios smelled a gold rush and quickly started churning out their own second-generation copies of the John Carpenter copy.
While some of these movies certainly do match Carpenter’s classic in terms of technical proficiency and thematic resonance— A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), The Stepfather (1987), and Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1991) leap to mind—no one goes to them looking for slick visuals and well-rounded characters.
We watch ’80s slashers because they’re cheap, nasty, and excessive. We’ll watch a tonal mess like The Mutilator (1984) because it somehow combines vicious kills with an “aw-shucks” sense of innocence. We’ll watch the nonsensically-plotted Happy Birthday to Me (1981) because the girl from Little House on the Prairie shoves a shishkabob through a guy’s head. We’ll watch My Bloody Valentine (1981) because an old lady gets shoved into a laundry dryer.
These movies exist only to give the viewer inventive kills. Anything else, from thematic depth to competent filmmaking, is secondary at best.
Totally Killer Isn’t Totally a Slasher
All of that said, Totally Killer doesn’t really have Friday the 13th or Slumber Party Massacre (1982) on its mind. Rather the most important cultural touchpoint is Back to the Future, the 1985 sci-fi classic from Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale.
Totally Killer stars Kiernan Shipka from Mad Men and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina as Jamie, a modern teen whose mother Pam (Julie Bowen) and father Blake (Lochlyn Munro) limit her activities, owing to the former’s trauma of surviving an attack in 1987 from a masked killer that took the life of her three best friends. After the masked killer returns and finishes the job, Jamie accidentally travels back to 1987 where she hopes to befriend her mom and dad (played as teens by Olivia Holt and Charles Gillespie) to stop the murders then and now.
Not only do characters in Totally Killer explicitly reference Back to the Future when explaining time-travel mechanics, Jamie also follows the character beats of Marty McFly. Jamie discovers that, despite what her mother told her, young Pam talks back to her own mom and treats other people like dirt. As she learns the true identity of the killer, Jamie also sees the adults in her life as flawed people who still carry the baggage from their childhoods. Also she learns that her father was a very hot young man, but fortunately, she never tries to make out with him.
Furthermore, horror isn’t even a secondary concern for Totally Killer. Where every moment that the killer hunts a potential victim, the screenplay by David Matalon, Sasha Perl-Raver, and Jen D’Angelo features five moments in which Jamie responds with confusion and disgust at the very non-PC behavior of the 1987 teens.
Not only does this structure limit Shipka to playing a scold, but it also puts it in a poor position to invoke the slasher genre. Totally Killer wants the audience to know that it does not condone the behavior of characters in the ‘80s, making Jamie a very safe, and ultimately very boring, lead.
But most ‘80s slashers aren’t okay by any standards. More than any other horror subgenre, the slashers of the ‘80s embraced tastelessness and lurid content. They felt like something that shouldn’t be seen, certainly not by theatergoers watching a major studio release.
Totally Killer is simply too nice, too character-focused, and frankly too well-made to achieve a level of homage or commentary on the genre it is pantomiming.
Bringing the Slasher Out of the ‘80s
Of course, Totally Killer is hardly the only slasher produced after the 1980s. Most famously, 1996’s Scream gave the subgenre a new lease on life, albeit that came from A Nightmare on Elm Street creator Wes Craven (as well as future Dawson’s Creek creator Kevin Williamson). But when Stranger Things inaugurated a wave of ‘80s nostalgia in the 2010s, numerous projects have tried to recreate the slashers from that era, from the television series American Horror Story: 1984 to the Halloween sequels by David Gordon Green.
While they certainly have their unpleasant parts, none of these works quite match the nastiness and cheapness of the source material. Of the most popular entries in the past decades, only the Terrifier series comes close to combining the shoddy filmmaking, ridiculous plotting, and rejection of taste found in the original genre.
All of this isn’t to say that filmmakers can’t or shouldn’t try to update the slasher formula. A lot of the sexual politics in the genre need to be rejected, such as the implication that women should be punished for sexuality or that trans people should be feared. Furthermore, the genre can find new ways of transgressing social norms without repeating tired tropes that evoke the safety of conservative Baby Boomers during the Reagan years.
In fact, Totally Killer’s production company Blumhouse has had success doing this very thing. The Christopher Landon projects Happy Death Day and Freaky take on many of the same tropes that Totally Killer follows but combines them with updated production values, a sound moral core, and even fully-developed characters. However, those movies work because they understand the importance of well-staged kill sequences, something that Totally Killer and so many other ‘80s nostalgia trips on streaming flub.
If filmmakers want to continue evoking ‘80s slashers, they need to understand what those movies are. They’re nasty, they’re cheap, and they’re all about the kills. Films like Totally Killer, which don’t want any of those three elements, aren’t really talking about ‘80s slashers. They’re talking about something much more safe and much less interesting.