Is Totally Killer based on a true crime story?

By Lori Meek
Published: October 11, 2023
Is Totally Killer based on a true crime story?

Prime Video’s slasher comedy Totally Killer took the streaming world by storm this Spooky Season with its clever storyline and unique take on the final girl trope. The plot revolves around a teenager who travels back in time to stop a serial killer (and time travel definitely doesn’t exist… yet), leaving fans questioning whether any true crime cases inspired the Nahnatchka Khan-directed thriller. 

The answer isn’t as straightforward as you’d expect. While the film doesn’t have one specific true crime case behind it, it does play on society’s morbid fascination with a type of killer that was sure to make headlines back in the 80s.

What is Totally Killer about?

The film stars Kiernan Shipka as Jamie Hughes, a typical Gen Z teen who rarely sees eye to eye with her overprotective mother, Pam (played as an adult by Julie Bowen and by Olivia Holt as a teen). When Pam was 16, the infamous Sweet 16 Killer murdered three of her friends. 

READ: Why is Totally Killer Rated R?

Unsurprisingly, the event turned Pam into the annoying and overly cautious parent she is. On Halloween, Jamie sneaks out to go out with her friends and she comes home to find her mother’s been murdered by the Sweet 16 Killer who caught up with her after all these years. 

Thankfully, Jamie’s best friend made a time machine for a school project, so the girl travels back to 1987 to hopefully stop the Sweet 16 Killer and save Pam’s life. 

Is Totally Killer based on a true crime story?

Not quite. The narrative is entirely fictitious and written by Sasha Perl-Raver, Jen D’Angelo, and David Matalon. However, Totally Killer is a nostalgic homage to the slasher film genre that took off back in the 70s and 80s with iconic classics like Halloween and Friday the 13th,  when serial killers were more commonplace than today. 

As Khan explains in a recent Rolling Stone interview, the slasher movie’s popularity can be correlated with our inherent fascination with true crime, specifically with serial killers: 

But I think, honestly, there’s something about serial killers in general that society can’t get enough of and I think slasher movies are heightened versions of that. There’s just something fascinating to us about horrific people doing these terrible things. […]

We touched on it for comedy in my movie, how the evolution of technology has prevented more serial killers. Because back in the day, people were just driving across state lines and giving fake names and getting jobs like, you know, installing stereo equipment in someone’s house or something like that.

While the movie is a work of fiction, it does pay homage to a subgenre of horror that has a basis in reality. After all, serial killers from the 80s are still the subjects of true crime docuseries, podcasts, books, movies, and TV shows about their lives and crimes. 

Is the Sweet 16 Killer based on a real serial killer?

The Sweet 16 Killer is entirely fictional. While the movie’s main masked villain has no real-life counterpart, that creepy blonde mask designed by make-up artist Tony Gardner he wears was inspired by several real (and animated) 80s heartthrobs. When talking to EW about that nightmare-inducing mask worn by the killer, Khan recalls: 

We landed on the idea of a handsome man being terrifying. Tony Gardner [and] our design team started pulling ’80s heartthrob references, like Kiefer Sutherland and Rob Lowe and Dolph Lundgren, and even Johnny Bravo, and then exaggerated it and made the teeth oversized. The idea [was] that the last thing you see is this beautiful smile as you’re being killed.

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