- Nahnatcka Khan’s “Totally Killer” combines comedy, horror, time travel and true crime tropes to create a fantastic mashup movie, now streaming on Amazon Prime.
- It manages to combine genres without muddying the mood of scenes by relying on a strong cast and distinct tonal shifts.
- The film references classic horror movies like “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th,” while leaning into Khan’s comedic prowess.
- “Totally Killer” relies heavily on practical set pieces and choreography to create convincing scares and to ground emotion of key scenes.
Nahnatcka Khan’s “Totally Killer” is much more than your standard slasher flick.
“To the people who work in comedy, it feels like a tightrope walk whenever you’re doing it, you know, because you feel the life and death of it all, but nobody else does,” Khan tells KCRW’s Elvis Mitchell. “And so to actually be able to manifest that into a true movie, and story was really satisfying.”
And don’t forget time travel! Khan’s latest feature is actually “a classic slasher movie fused with Back to the Future,” writes Andrew Webster for The Verge. (He also compares the movie to “Yellowjackets” because of the shifting timeline and two sets of actors.)
But wait, there’s more! “On top of sending up beloved genres like slashers, ’80s teen comedies, and time-travel flicks, ‘Totally Killer’ also tackles a modern-day obsession: true crime,” observes Mashable’s Belen Edwards.
How exactly does this work?
“I like the idea of mashups,” Khan told Collider in a video interview. (Watch the full conversation, below.)
Ehrhart summarizes: “Amazon‘s glossiest, wildest new horror-comedy finds Jamie (Kiernan Shipka) reeling after her mother (Julie Bowen) is murdered by a masked menace known as the “Sweet Sixteen Killer.” Thirty-five years earlier, the same murderer went on a killing spree in her town, leaving her mom the sole survivor of a group of teen friends.
“Luckily, her best friend Amelia (Kelcey Mawema) just finished building a time machine for the science fair, which allows Jamie to travel back to when the first murders occurred and team up with her teenage mom (Olivia Holt) in an effort to save everyone.”
MOVIE REFERENCES AND COMPARISONS
Even as a genre-bender, “Totally Killer” is grounded by references and allusions to classic horror movies.
Although known for her comedy work, Khan is a horror fan, telling Rolling Stone she is a fan of “The Conjuring” universe, as well as the original “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th.”
Editor Jeremy Cohen tells 1428 Elm, “I rewatched ‘Scream’ and I watched ‘Halloween’ again and again” in preparation. The end result includes some “pretty explicit references to ‘Halloween,’” he says, adding “ Even the opening shot, with everyone trick or treating and crossing the street. There’s also a pull-out from the house, which is somewhat of an homage to Halloween. There’s even a part where the killer stabs someone and does a Michael Myers head nod.”
In addition to the visuals, Cohen says he “used a lot of temp score from ‘Halloween’ when putting this together and John Carpenter throughout. We also reference some of the music from ‘X,’ which has that sing-songy soundtrack by Chelsea Wolfe.”
Another nod to the horror genre is the Sweet 16 Killer’s mask.
“I think that mask is really crucial for a good slasher movie, especially for this one because I wanted it to feel original, but it had to feel of the time, like something that could exist back then.
“But also, I didn’t want the whole movie to feel retro and nostalgic because Jamie is from this present, she’s from the future, so you have this sort of Gen Z energy going into this John Hughes world,” Khan tells Taylor.
To craft the mask “of a handsome man being scary,” they worked with Tony Gardner and Alterian Inc., Khan says. To get the right vibe — Khan wanted “just the right amount of camp” — leaning into Kiefer Sutherland’s look in “Lost Boys,” as well as 1980s heartthrobs and Dolph Lundgren.
READ MORE: ‘Totally Killer’ Director Nahnatchka Khan Reveals the Keys to a Great Slasher Movie (The Wrap)
THR’s Brian Davids says the end result is a “Gary Busey meets Zack Morris concoction,” which Khan agrees is an “amazing description.”
DISTINCT GENRES AND TIMELINES
Cohen explains that despite the fact that the movie is a mashup, Khan wanted scenes to fall distinctly into certain categories.
He says, “The comedy parts are the comedy parts, and the horror parts are the horror parts. There aren’t a ton of laughs when the killer is chasing someone with a knife. We worked on the pace of it, so when you’re watching a scene, you don’t know if a joke will pop out next or the killer.
“It involved figuring out ways to play with the cutting patterns and tension so you don’t know what’s going to come next. When things arrive, they come at unexpected moments, whether it’s a laugh or a death.”
Khan told The Wrap, “To get in this space and do a mashup and then check your swing a little bit on the horror part, I feel like that would’ve been a disservice. That’s the fun of doing something like this. It’s the idea of keeping the audience off balance with the comedy so you don’t know like, Oh, is this a comedic scene or is this person actually going to get killed?”
“We wanted transitions to help you know where you were” in time, Cohen explained. “There’s a bit in there, where we cut from the fresh 80s Billy the Beaver to a dilapidated beaver. There aren’t that many scenes in 2023, and they’re straight forward. With the present timeline, we kept it grounded more in comedy and the family life. When you go back in the 80s, it gets a little bit bigger in terms of the volleyball game, the 80s mom who hasn’t tried the cocaine, and all that kind of stuff. Our DP and production designers did a really cool job distinguishing visually between the two as well.”
The comedy scenes set in the 1980s were supposed to feel “inviting… to the audience,” DP Judd Overton told Frame & Reference (listen to the full conversation below). He added that this time frame was supposed to have a “John Hughes” vibe.
With that in mind, Overton says, they determined “having all that anamorphic wonkiness going on wasn’t quite the right way to go for what’s basically an ensemble comedy with a lot of body bits.”
He explains, “It was just too too strong a look. So we what we ended up opting for is the Geckos… rehoused vintage lenses, kind of like a K 30 size, sort of, you know, 70s, vintage glass, but they’re very clean, and they behave nicely. You know, nice fall off, and you get the occasional sort of rainbow flares and things like that. So they’re vintage without being too — you know, they don’t put up too much of a patina between that between the audience.”
However, they did pull out the Orion 21mm for the time machine scenes, in which some disorientation felt more than appropriate, he told Kenny McMillan.
THE FINAL GIRL TROPE
Khan notes that “the idea of the final girl is something that exists in the genre” of slasher films, and she took the opportunity to give “these women more agency” and update the trope.
As the daughter of lone survivor Pam (Julie Bowen), protagonist Jamie (Kiernan Shipka) has inherited both trauma and a set of survival tools, Khan explains to Rolling Stone. And then the inciting incident of Pam’s murder creates “an interesting handoff for the final girl idea.”
Khan says, “Something that was appealing to me was the idea that even though Jamie is being hunted, and there is a vicious killer on the loose, she’s actually kind of hunting him. She’s propelling the story in a way that feels new to me because she will not stop until she stops him. That unrelenting drive of this young woman who’s at the center of this movie just feels like a new kind of shade on that idea of a final girl.”
“I think what was compelling about this is … there’s a killer that’s hunting, but the main character is the one that is driving everything, like she is hunting this killer in her own way,” Khan explains to KCRW.
SET PIECES AND STUNTS
Choreography is also key to an effective horror film. “Totally Killer” stunt coordinator Simon Burnett helped Khan “shoot as much practically as we could,” she told Collider. His role required him to manage both a dodgeball fight with “the chaos of war” as well as encounters with a deadly serial killer on a waterbed and a Gravitron carnival ride.
“The first kill or fight sequence was really fun to put together,” Cohen tells 1428 Elm. “It was really fun to get to use the footage of her doing these stunts and just to work on selling the intensity and brutality of that scene. There’s a lot of little editing tricks, like speed ups and cutting a frame here and there. It’s interesting because some small little frame difference can make a difference between whether or not a hit or stab sells or if people think it looks weird.”
The waterbed was designed by Liz Kay and the scene was shot in a real home, so Khan says they used five cameras to capture lots of angles and avoid a reshoot.
And that Gravitron was also real and purchased with very little time to spare for the crucial final sequence. “They were down for all of it,” Khan says of the team at Blumhouse, which she attributes to a genuine enthusiasm for making movies.
To simulate the Gravitron’s movement (a no-go with cameras inside), Khan explains, “DP Judd Overton and his team had a lighting rig going outside because there’s like small cracks in between the panels so you can see the lights moving. And that suggests movement. And then we have the practical effects guys in there with blowers…so [you get] that effect of being stuck to the wall.”
The Gravitron “is as close to outer space as I’ve shot,” Overton joked to Frame & Reference.
Shooting the end scene, he says, “was a real challenge. It was a lot of fun.”
While the crew was limited in the modifications that they could safely make, Overton says they created a practical period look with “some LED strips, but they had a casing on them that basically looks like a like an old neon.” That was important because they “created a chase that really felt that we could build it up, so that as the as the film progresses, and as the Gravitron speeds up, you know, you see it in the lighting.”
“Even though Gravitron wasn’t moving… you feel it,” Overton says of the VFX’s efficacy.