Totally Killer Director on Remixing Back to the Future with Halloween and Scream

Thứ sáu - 17/05/2024 23:42
Fandom spoke with Totally Killer director Nahnatchka Khan about her wild new Back to the Future-meets-Scream horror-comedy debuting on Prime.
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What if Marty McFly went back in time, three decades into the past, and met his parents… but also had to stop a murderous masked maniac? That’s essentially the premise of Prime Video’s new horror-comedy (or, honestly, comedy-horror) film, Totally Killer, directed by Fresh off the Boat and Young Rock creator Nahnatchka Khan.

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’s Kiernan Shipka stars as Jamie, a Gen-Zer whose mother (Modern Family‘s Julie Bowen) survived a serial killer rampage in 1987 that took the lives of her three teen besties. Jamie now finds herself accidentally traveling back 35 years to when this Sweet Sixteen Killer terrorized her small town, determined to prevent horrible tragedies from happening while also hilariously enduring some of the more, um, problematic elements of ‘80s high school life.

Kiernan Shipka totally traveling through time.

With Totally Killer hitting Prime Video on October 6, I spoke to director Nahnatchka Khan about the wild sci-fi twists of this slasher whodunnit, the Scream factor, having fun with ‘80s movies seen through a 2023 lens, and laughing along with some loosey-goosy time travel.


The time travel element of Totally Killer may feel like a big leap once it’s causally introduced — basically, after some huge unrelated events occur we learn than Jamie’s best friend has perfected a time machine — but that’s because Khan really didn’t want to dwell on it too much, using it as a way to propel the comedy, which for her was the focus.

“Comedy is the entry point that I would enter anything with,” she explained, “lulling you in and making you be like, ‘okay, there’s a light disagreement between mother and daughter, whatever’ and then taking a hard left with the first kill sequence and then introducing a legit slasher on the loose. This violent maniac. Bringing that into that sort of light world I think was a fun entry point.”

You spin me right round, baby, right round

With time travel, Khan didn’t want to get too much into the metaphysical weeds. One character even makes a remark about how time travel movies never make any sense. “You just have to make that buy in of  ‘Okay, this is possible in this world,’” Khan said. “How much are we going to lean into it? How much are we going to reference other movies that have had it? And there’s just been so much time travel around us. We even now have the multiverse where there are multiple timelines, multiple planes, and we’re all existing in multiple versions.”

“And so I think for us it was just sort of cutting through that and being like, ‘let’s have a good time. Let’s acknowledge that there’s never going to be the perfect version of this, and let’s make this the buy and keep going.’”


Like Back to the Future, which gets name dropped in a big way, Totally Killer has Jamie meeting many of the adults she knows in 2023 as teenagers in 1987…including her parents, with her Mean Girl mom Pam played by Olivia Holt (Kickin’ It, Cloak & Dagger). Not only does the film have fun with Jamie dealing with radically different versions of the grown ups in her life, but also with the callous un-PC bullying of the time.

You don't even go here!

A big part of this movie for Kahn was having Jamie head back into the time of John Hughes movies and experience it first hand. “She has this 2023 lens on things that were going on back then that were just accepted, which is crazy, because it wasn’t all that long ago. But really there’s also the idea that she’s experienced this traumatic event. And so we’re having fun but there are real stakes here and she’s really got to stop certain things from happening.”

When it comes to beloved ‘80s films, even the most benign classics have one or two cringy, problematic moments – unfortunate landmines that sometimes make them a challenging recommendation. “If you want to tell someone to watch something or check something out, you have to be like, ‘It’s a great movie but there will be a couple things that they shouldn’t have said.’ You’re trying to explain it but you’re also apologizing for this thing that you loved, and it’s just uncomfortable.” This is where Totally Killer finds a lot of its laughs, with Jamie having to awkwardly navigate a world of rampant insensitive behavior.

Mask Hysteria

Since Totally Killer plays out like a mystery, the mask worn by the Sweet Sixteen Killer needed to make a statement. And if you’re getting Max Headroom vibes from it, that’s on purpose. “The conceit is that these kills happened 35 years ago, but people still dress like the Sweet Sixteen Killer,” Khan shared. “So I wanted something that felt relevant today, but obviously nostalgic as well.”

“It had to come about in the eighties,” she continued, “and so we were sort of talking about what that could be. And the idea of a handsome man being scary was something that was interesting to me because it feels relevant today. The idea of somebody just owning the space that they’re in and not caring about what that does to anybody else. So once we landed on that, our design team, (makeup designer) Tony Gardner and his team at Alterian, started pulling ‘80s references. So they got Rob Lowe, Dolph Lundgren, Kiefer Sutherland. We’ve got a little Lost Boys touch with the earring. There’s a little Johnny Bravo in there too. And Max Headroom, yeah, up top.”

The HalloScream Effect

Since the identity of the Sweet Sixteen Killer is unknown, Totally Killer has fun with suspects and red herrings, much like Scream did (and many whodunnit slashers from the 80s did, starting with the first Friday the 13th). That in itself took some wrangling and balancing since you don’t want to play your hand too much and you want to make sure everything makes sense. Much like how Scream fans now revisit the first movie trying to figure out who committed which murder.

“Oh my God, we should be so lucky to have people going back through it like Scream, 25 years later,” Khan said with a laugh.

“But yeah, it’s definitely something you want to track through every scene,” she added. “Knowing where the killer is at every moment. Always allowing it to make sense in a rewatch. Knowing where they came from when they attack. Then there are also the breadcrumbs you leave along the way, and the red herrings, because you don’t just want to have one suspect or people will get ahead of it. You also, with the script, do a Whodunnit Pass.”

Another horror movie that Totally Killer saddles up to is the 2018 Halloween, which features Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode as a grown, traumatized survivor whose paranoia has affected both her daughter and granddaughter, much like Bowen’s Pam at the film’s start.

Said Khan, “With Kiernan’s Jamie, she’s always thought, ‘Oh, [my mom] is exaggerating. My mom’s being crazy. She’s overprotective, she’s overbearing, and then this thing comes back into her life in a way that now activates her and puts her at the center of not even her own story – this is her mother’s story that she now has to deal with. That sort of handoff of trauma and handoff of agency, I think, is kind of cool, especially in a slasher where most of these young women are being hunted the whole movie.”

Totally Killer premieres Friday, October 6 on Prime Video.

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