For die-hards, no horror movie can be too terrifying. But for you, a wimp, the wrong one can leave you miserable. Never fear, scaredies, because Slate’s Scaredy Scale is here to help. We’ve put together a highly scientific and mostly spoiler-free system for rating new horror movies, comparing them with classics along a 10-point scale. And because not everyone is scared by the same things—some viewers can’t stand jump scares, while others are haunted by more psychological terrors or can’t stomach arterial spurts—it breaks down each movie’s frights across three criteria: suspense, spookiness, and gore.
Grab your parachute pants and put your hair in a side ponytail, because this time we’re assessing Blumhouse’s new time-travel slasher for Prime Video, starring Kiernan Shipka (Sally Draper from Mad Men, Sabrina from Chilling Adventures of Sabrina). Directed by Always Be My Maybe’s Nahnatchka Khan, Totally Killer follows teenager Jamie (Shipka) as she journeys back in time to catch the mystery murderer who would go on to target her adolescent parents and their friends from the 1980s to the present day. The movie’s generous helpings of nostalgia, paired with its comedic tone and Halloween setting, make it a perfect watch for spooky season, though viewers should be aware that it does boast an R rating and a not-insubstantial body count. Mashable called it an “R-rated Disney Channel Original Movie,” which it hastened to add was a compliment, all of which seems about right. But is this really kiddie stuff, or is it more like the kind of teen bloodbath that has left generations afraid to answer the phone? Let’s take a stab at breaking it all down.
Any movie emulating ’80s horror is bound to have at least a handful of jump scares here and there, and Totally Killer is no exception. Luckily for those with naturally higher heart rates, the movie keeps those to just a few, at some pretty predictable moments. It’s about as suspenseful as you would expect of a movie with a sardonic lead whose trip into the past leaves her kvetching about missing Wi-Fi, other characters’ poor understanding of consent, and the disappointing quality of ’80s weed. Which is to say, it’s more funny than nerve-racking.
Totally Killer may not be especially frightening, but it is a slasher, and there’s no shortage of slashing: The villain, dubbed the Sweet 16 Killer, is known for knifing his victims, well, 16 times. To the movie’s credit, a good portion of the bloodshed happens off-screen. We might watch the killer perform the stabbing motion, but we don’t always see the blade meet the body. That being said, there are plenty of times when we definitely do witness the butcher slaughter his prey, and, however the deed itself is shot, there’s always a bloody corpse left in view after the masked assassin finishes the job. Of these three categories, I’m most desensitized to gore, but the sounds of the executions still sometimes made me grimace, even if the gruesome act was hidden by the camera.
This movie spends a good chunk of its run time laughing at ’80s scary movies and the ’80s in general. Jamie balks at the high school’s lack of security when, after just saying she’s an exchange student, she’s handed a schedule. She hitches a ride from a stranger, a mother with young children who is surprised when Jamie hesitates at her offer to drive her to the high school and proceeds to smoke in the car the entire way. And Jamie’s parents and their friends aren’t the brightest bulbs in the box, more concerned with pot brownies and sex than the brutal deaths of their friends. Not to mention, she gets to do all of this because of time travel. All of which is to say: The movie isn’t taking any of this too seriously. The most that stays with you when it’s over are the jokes, not the shivers. Still, a serial killer is a serial killer, and that’s a threat that’s at least more real than time travel, so I give this a modest 2.
Totally Killer is a good mix of traditional horror, meta humor, and Reagan-era throwbacks, all peppered with some f-bombs. It’s more entertaining than it is hair-raising, which is good news for all the Shipka fans who may be accustomed to Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’s fairly mild shocks. However, those suffering from hemophobia—or still scarred by ’80s fashion—might have to occasionally cover their eyes.
Additional chart photos by PBS, Buena Vista Distribution Company, Warner Bros., Universal Pictures, Buena Vista Pictures, Paramount Pictures, New Line Cinema, Twentieth Century Fox, Fox Searchlight Pictures, IFC Films, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), Lions Gate Films, Pixar, TWC-Dimension, and Sony Pictures.