How "Totally Killer" flips the final girl horror script: "She's actually the one that's hunting him"

Director Nahnatchka Khan discusses balancing horror references with comedic John Hughes nods in this genre mash-up

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published October 10, 2023 12:00PM (EDT)

Totally Killer (Prime Video)
Totally Killer (Prime Video)

The following contains spoilers for Prime Video's time-traveling horror-comedy "Totally Killer."

Before directing "Always Be My Maybe," Nahnatchka Khan was best known for creating "Fresh Off the Boat" and "Young Rock," two broadcast half-hours that pull the audience back in time to the early '90s. These experiences make her a natural to helm "Totally Killer," a horror comedy tossing assorted scary movie chestnuts into a trick-or-treat sack with major 1980s signposts. 

The movie takes place at Halloween, but it is a plentiful Easter egg hunt for children of the '80s, starting with its overall pitch Khan summarized in a recent interview: "What if there was a serial killer running around in 'Back to the Future'? You know what I mean?"

Probably, given how familiar its premise is. Its heroine Jamie (Kiernan Shipka) is a surly Gen Z teen in 2023 who is unexpectedly sent back to 1987 to stop the Sweet Sixteen Killer, a masked slasher channeling Billy Idol more than Michael Myers. Sweet Sixteen is a local legend who murdered the BFFs of her mother Pam (Julie Bowen) and, for mysterious reasons, leaves Pam alive only to stalk her 35 years later.

Totally KillerTotally Killer (Prime Video)But this isn't yet another '80s nostalgia ride, and Jamie is not your typical final girl. In a wide-ranging interview, Khan explained the movie's top influences, Bowen's heroic level of physical commitment to her role, and the similarities between making comedies and horror flicks.

This interview transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

"Totally Killer" presents an interesting combination of director style. Off the top of my head, you have Robert Zemeckis, you have John Hughes, you have Wes Craven, among others.  What aspects of each director's work inspired you?

I think those are absolutely correct. And I think it's getting inspired by all of them, and then figuring out how Zemeckis, Craven and Hughes, if they had to make a movie together, how do you bring all these elements together and make it feel cohesive, while still sort of tipping your hat to where it's come from? So I think that was a great roadmap for us, because I think there are so many elements at play here, that even though it sounds kind of disparate, when you talk about it, it plays.  . . . So it was a fun journey to be able to go on with those filmmakers that you mentioned. Then also there were little touches here and there from "Friday the 13th" and the original "Halloween" and really sort of leaning into that.

Yeah, there are a lot of small visual details to clock. It's going to be fun to go back and pull out all the different homages. How do you find that balance between having these nods to different movies, versus making sure that people aren't taken too much out of the action?

You know, this movie is like a wild fun ride . . . once that initial kind of fight-kill sequence happens. And hopefully, you're sort of like, "Oh, my God, I wasn't expecting this." And then you're along for the ride. You're with Jamie, you're armed with the knowledge that she's armed with that other people in the movie don't have. But hopefully, you're compelled by the actual story that we're telling here so that those little Easter eggs, and those little details are color, you know, and just add to the experience instead of distract.

Totally KillerTotally Killer (Prime Video)

I'm glad that you brought up the first fight sequence. The main feature that you did before this was "Always Be My Maybe," and the only fighting I can think of in that was the one between Keanu [Reeves] and Randall [Park] when Randall smashes the glass over Keanu's head. This movie isn't the first time you've filmed something that physical, is it?

Yeah, this is the first time I've done a legit, fight sequences, action sequences, kill sequences. And we had an amazing stunt team. Simon Burnett, who's based in Vancouver, and his whole team so we really worked with Julie, with the stunt team, just the blocking of it the way we were going to shoot it. That's specific first fight I wanted to be very close with her. I wanted to feel handheld, like you can sense the danger more.

. . . And Julie was a legend. She did all of her own stunts. The only thing she didn't want to do is be thrown through the coffee table and thrown onto the marble countertop, But everything else is all her.

One of the things that I loved about that action sequence is the line where Bowen's character] Pam turns around and says to the killer, "I've been preparing to fight for my life for 35 years." You don't see that in most horror movies.

Absolutely. And I'm so glad that line landed with you, and that it stuck with you, because everything really in that fight sequence is broken down to pre- that line and post- that line. Before that line, it feels like almost like a home invasion, like, "Oh my God, this woman is going to die, this maniac is breaking in". And then, she goes down the hallway, she calls the police on the alarm system, and then she turns . . . and instead of running away, she comes back towards him and faces him.

In my mind, that is the "holy **t" moment. Because that's when she's going to face this thing that's been haunting her for 35 years — the specter of this, and she's even passed it down to her daughter in ways that are going to come back into play later in the movie. But yeah, that was a crucial moment and a moment for her to kind of take agency, you know, ownership of this thing that had happened to her.

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There have been so many feminist interpretations of the final girl through the years. And this one, I think, takes on this new idea that we've actually seen filtered through "Only Murders in the Building" and [Mabel's] obsession with "Dateline." That idea and all the other "then versus now" moments in terms of how we looked at these women in the '80s versus how they're seen now, everything about that difference. And I'm wondering how you sought to capture that through Jamie.

You know, another sort of element here that is a little bit subversive in a cool way that I appreciate . . . is the idea of Jamie, Kiernan Shipka's character experiencing this hugely traumatic event, then going back to try to stop it.

So she is being hunted, right, which is typical of the genre – that the young woman is hunted by the killer. He's hunting these other young women of the era and the time, but she's actually the one that's hunting him. She's come for him, and she's not going to stop until she gets him. It's not something that we're leaning on or whatever. It's a subtle thing. But hopefully the escalation in the propulsion of this story, you feel her unrelentingness. That she's not going to run away, metaphorically, in the same way her mother didn't run away down the hall.

That adds something fun and different to all these other balls in the air – the fun of being back in the '80s, and having that Gen Z lens, being able to play with the comedy of commenting on stuff that was taken for granted, and we all kind of just lived with, and [Jamie] being like, "That's not OK!" and "This is weird, isn't it?"

Speaking of that, another film that has a heavy influence is "Heathers." There have been a lot of reappraisals of that movie, especially recently. And I also thought about  how this movie finds balance between the jump scares and the humor. There's a lot of death in "Heathers," but all of it is presented as camp. There's never any sense of a threat with the audience, although the threat is real. Was there any guidance that you established for yourself in terms of maintaining the equilibrium between an honest jump scare with the Sweet Sixteen Killer, and the humor laced throughout "Totally Killer"?

I think it was walking that tightrope, wanting to make sure that we were covered both ways.  You're constantly on that line. And, if it works, they can complement each other, when you're just keeping the audience off balance in terms of what's coming – you know, you're laughing, and then suddenly the killer is there. That's something I wanted to maintain all throughout.

You've worked with Randall before of "Fresh Off the Boat" and "Always Be My Maybe" and then he returns here in a different type than we're used to seeing him in his larger scale kind of roles. What about for you? Is this movie within your wheelhouse, or was "Totally Killer" against type for you?

For me, it's like an extension really.  Comedy and horror are connected, I think, in terms of rhythm and setup and payoff, so it felt like a really great expansion pack, almost, of the initial tools.

And I also agree with you on the Randall front. It's really fun to see him just play a d**k – like this guy who is dismissive of this young woman, favors his own daughter and is just, you know, smoking constantly. It was fun.

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Let me ask you to expand on what you just said: I'm much more of a comedy person than a horror person. Can you explain those similarities in setup and payoff between comedy and horror?

Yeah. I think the goal of both things is to get a visceral response from your audience. So for comedy, it's all about the laugh, right? You can't decide to laugh or not. You either do or you don't, like your audience. So it's all about the setup. If the punch line is not working, and we're not getting the laugh, you've gotta go back. Same thing with the scares. Here in this space, it's about the tension, it's about the sort of the moments before that jump scare, whether you anticipate it or not, it's the same idea of setup and payoff. And I think that where they differ is that the rhythm of comedy. It's setup, pay off and punch line, that's a very specific rhythm. In horror, it's a rhythm, too.

So being able to play both those rhythms, I think it one helps the other. So you're not relying just on the scares or just on the comedy here.

Totally KillerTotally Killer (Prime Video)What is the feeling that you're hoping that people will kind of hook into in terms of "Totally Killer" being very much an '80s homage?

I mean, there's definitely a nostalgia there. But even if you weren't an '80s kid, there's just the fun of how things used to be. Because what's so great about this movie and Kiernan's performance is that we're not just in the '80s, but we're looking at the '80s through a 2023 lens. So that I think will be a fun exposure for people who haven't lived through it the first time.

Yeah. A lot of people who watch this will see this a different view of the decade, because on TV it's often filtered through "Stranger Things."

Yeah, it's definitely bringing you into the more John Hughes teenage world. That was the lens that we all saw back then; that was the pop culture reference of the time and  being able to look at it now and be like, "Ooh, that's problematic. Some things don't hold up there." That was a really fun time.

"Totally Killer" is streaming on Prime Video.


By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

1980s Horror Interview John Hughes Movies Nahnatchka Khan Prime Video Totally Killer Wes Craven