“This isn’t ‘Back to the Future,’” time-traveling Kiernan Shipka is told in “Totally Killer” — and it definitely isn’t. For one, her teenage mom is decidedly not interested in her when she lands in 1987; the ringleader of a mean girls clique called “The Mollies” (they all love Molly Ringwald), she’s definitely not the nervous mom Shipka’s Jamie knew so well. At least, until the serial killer who stabbed the other three Mollies back in ’87 reappears in 2023, murdering Jamie’s mom and sending Jamie back in time.
As Jamie rushes to prevent the Sweet 16 killer from picking off her mom’s friends, the story toggles back and forth between 1987 and the present day, where her best friend is working to create a new time machine. And director Nahnatchka Khan and cinematographer Judd Overton spoke a lot about keeping the two time periods recognizably separate.
“We didn’t go too hard on the patina or forcing saturated colors,” Overton told IndieWire. “Patty Henderson was our costume designer and did a great job finding those ’80s costumes, a lot of color pops and things like that. But otherwise, we kept it pretty neutral. I used some vintage lenses, the Gecko Glass G35. It’s a German company that rehoused a combination of Canon K35s, and FD lenses so that they function like a modern lens. They’re very easy for the camera assistants to use (and) switch between cameras. And the way that they handle contrast is really nice, slightly low contrast with a subtle rainbow flare.” Overton renders the contemporary world, meanwhile, with modern lenses and a lot more contrast to immediately spell out to the viewer in what time period we’re in.
Balancing the eras was one thing; the comedy-horror tone was quite another. “One of the first meetings I had with Nahnatchka was, ‘How do we get the tone right?’” Overton said. “And the funny thing we found about comedy is that the way that you sort of set up those comedy beats and deliver on them, there’s actually a common language between building up of tension and release in horror.”
That balance means that John Hughes references can live happily next to horror Easter eggs ranging from hat tips to the original “Halloween” to a teen party in an isolated cabin straight out of “Friday the 13th.” There are even more recent films referenced, including Alex Garland’s “Men.” But that didn’t preclude “Totally Killer” from including some totally bloody kills along the way, including one stabbing scene involving a water bed that is poised on the knife’s edge of comedy and horror.
“That was a very tricky one because you’ve got water in there, you’ve got a lot of different consistencies, and then we were renting someone’s house with white carpets everywhere, so there’s a lot of things to consider there,” Overton said with a laugh. “We tried to do as much practically as we could. But there’s definitely enhancement on those blood spots. Even just in the grade, if it’s too saturated, I can pull that out. But if you haven’t got enough blood in there, it’s really hard to bring red into it.”
In addition to a rented house with white carpets, the production also used the existing Keepers Doll Factory attraction at Vancouver’s Playland for one of the film‘s most memorable set pieces. “We had another set that we were building for that,” Overton said. But they kept peering into a boarded-up attraction wondering what was inside. “All of those creatures, those monks with the funky eyes and the marionettes, that was all there. And they have a lot of hydraulic effects and creatures in there. It’s a freaky area with hanging bodies, it’s just a very disturbing space. I dunno what they get up to, but it ain’t good!”
Somehow, “Totally Killer” tops itself with one final terrifying sequence that combines setting with a very big knife and a very angry killer. And it was once again set on an actual amusement park ride; this time, the Quantum Drop.
Trapped against the walls by centrifugal force, Jamie and her mother watch as the killer approaches one slow push at a time. The effect is slow-motion horror that was achieved using some very practical effects.
“It was the last thing we shot,” Overton said. “We managed to get it (for) three days, which meant we had to shoot the exterior of it in our boardwalk set up. And then we had to take it to a stage and rebuild it inside.” During that process, they built ’80s neon lighting into it to provide the spinning effect. “It was so effective the crew were having to step off after a few hours.”
The end result is both darkly funny and also genuinely anxiety-inducing — as apt a metaphor for high school as any other.
“Totally Killer” is now streaming on Prime Video.