TOTALLY KILLER Director Nahnatchka Khan On Delivering The Laughs Between The Stabs

Plus: Time travel, and facing off against Freddy Krueger and Billy the Puppet.

By Angel Melanson · @HorrorGirlProbs · October 13, 2023, 7:25 PM EDT

Totally Killer director Nahnatchka Khan has a lush background in comedy, but this time, she's taking her first stab at horror. Khan joined us to talk about growing up a genre fan in a household where it was all but banished, our collective true crime obsession, terrifyingly handsome men and knowing which movie to place yourself in if you're hoping for a shot at emerging as the final girl. Read our interview right here, or scroll down for the full video interview. Mild spoilers ahead.

I'm a huge nerd for this movie. I had so much fun with it. You take us back to the '80s, which I'm a huge fan of, but I'm wondering visually, what's your favorite decade or era? Do you gravitate towards the '80s or do you have another one that just speaks to you?

That's a great question. I think '80s is really fun because of all the elements at play. I think '80s would definitely be it for me. I like '90s, too. I do like that sort of underground grunge vibe of the '90s, but I think '80s, '90s is cool.

Shockingly to me, this is your first foray into horror. Do you consider yourself a horror fan?

Totally. I've just been a fan of the genre, and it was so much fun to get to make something in this space because I love watching it, so it was really a treat to be able to do it.

Nice. Do you gravitate towards horror comedies or do you like very, very dark stuff?

I love horror comedy. I think Scream is, for me, one of the most amazing movies. The whole franchise, but the original Scream, you're just blown away. But I also love just the more straight horror, too. The Conjuring Universe is pretty amazing, and all the offshoots of it. I feel like Annabelle Comes Home doesn't get enough love. I don't understand why, because it's so good. I love it so much. I'm a sucker for found footage. Blair Witch is an amazing one. I just watched a small movie called The Unbinding that I thought was really cool and well done and interesting. So yeah, I just love the genre.

A lot of us came to the genre maybe a little too young, is that the case for you?

Well, for me, my parents didn't allow horror movies. My parents are both from Iran and so they have that superstitious immigrant mentality, especially my mom. So she was like, "No devil things, nothing. No Satan." Even those cheap Walmart costumes where it was like the devil and the red horns, she was like, "None of that. No, Casper is not a friendly ghost." I had to go to my friends' houses to watch horror, so I didn't come to it too young because I actively had to seek it out since it was not at my house.

I think parents maybe don't realize when they make it such a forbidden fruit, we just seek it out ten times harder.

That's all we want. We're like, I just want to watch Faces of Death at my friend's house.

Were you drawing on any movies in particular as you were making this? Did you have any inspiration or just things you would reference in the back of your mind?

Obviously, Back to the Future is a big touchstone for this movie. Scream is just tonally something that everybody aspires to. And then the horror genre, like the straight one, I think the original Halloween, there's a little bit of a nod there. The original Friday the 13th, some of those POV shots. And then some of those '80 slashers, just having fun with just little tips of the hat here and there.

Yeah. This is definitely a very fun movie, probably surprising nobody, you have quite a background in comedy, which you very much have on display here. There are all these little layered comedic moments that lend levity because the slasher parts are actually scary.

I'm so glad you appreciate the jokes and the humor and all that, because it was important that the slasher feel intense and feel like this is a maniac. This is a psychopath and a killer. So not having the comedy bleed into those scenes and letting those stand on their own and play for what they are, which is a brutal killer on the loose, and so weaving the comedy around those scenes and doing the handoff in a way that hopefully feels tonally satisfying so you're not feeling those gears shifting.

The horror parts are definitely straight horror. There's no comedy in a girl brutally being stabbed 16 times, and you feel that. There's just something so disgustingly brutal about that. Stabbing has always just kind of made me like, ugh. The sound.

The sound, I know. The brutality of it. Killing anything, but yeah, just that hand being so close. I think the only time we have comedy come into any kill scene is one of the very last ones when, we can do spoilers, right? Because it's already out. When her throat gets slit, and then she presses the rape alarm as she's dying. That was the only time that we were like, I have to have this in here.

totally killer

Let's talk about the killer's mask. I'm wondering, in the world of Totally Killer, does that mask have a backstory? Kids of the '80s are buying this mask. Is he a cartoon character? Is he a burger mascot? Do you have an origin story for this guy?

Obviously, any good slasher has to have an iconic mask, so it's like, what's that going to look like? We had all the references of the ones that have come before. I think when we landed on the idea of a handsome man being scary, that started to open it up for us because normally, Michael Myers being one of the most famous examples, but it's like you almost take away features, and that's what makes that scary, because it just looks like a blank canvas. There's no emotion, no expression, but if a handsome man is smiling at you as he's killing you, that's also quite scary.

And it feels really relevant still because in our movie mythology, these kills happened 35 years ago, but people in the town still dress up as The Sweet 16 Killer in the present day. So wanting it to feel not a hundred percent nostalgic, wanting it to play in both timelines, but knowing that it originated in the '80s, so we started pulling heartthrob references, like '80s handsome teen idol guys. So it was like Rob Lowe, Dolph Lundgren, and Kiefer Sutherland, all those Lost Boys. We gave him a little Lost Boys earring.

It was just like a right touch of camp. Then Tony Gardner and his team at Alterian, who are the mask designers, exaggerated the features. So he has this perfect smile, but it almost becomes shark-like because the teeth are too big, and it feels threatening, and just that idea of a smiling, handsome man being the last thing you see, I think is just scary.

It terrifies me.

Same. You want it to be that immediate, okay, there's a dude in the corner. I'm not going near him or whatever. But the scarier, well, they're both scary, but the scary version is this guy who seems nice, and he's appealing. It's the Ted Bundy, killer next door idea, just exaggerated a little bit for a mask effect.

This story plays with our true crime obsession. What are your feelings on that, where did you personally land? Are you a fan of true crime? Do you feel like it sometimes veers into exploitation?

I think for whatever reason, as a society, we are just fascinated by horrific events committed by real people, and I think there's just an element of "How would I have reacted in that situation? If I was living next door to Jeffrey Dahmer, would I have known?" So I think there is something fascinating about that. I listened to Serial, and I watch all those Golden State Killer documentaries. There is an element that I one hundred percent lean into, and I am fascinated by, but I do think it's very macabre, it's very dark. I think it lends itself to horror, but they have murder tours literally throughout Los Angeles. They've got the death tours, and you see just famous houses where people died and the Manson murders and all that, there's just something fascinating about it and you can't look away. I don't know what that is, but it's definitely there.

We're just morbid fuckers, I guess.

I guess so. There's no happy tour. It's not like this is where so-and-so proposed to so-and-so. Boring.

Do you think you would be a final girl if you were in a horror movie?

Here's the thing. It depends on what kind of horror movie. I feel like I would be overtaken. I'm not the fastest, so if I have to run through the woods, I'm not going to get away. So I think if it was more psychological, if it was like a Freddy Krueger in my dreams, maybe I'd be a final girl because I would have some sort of mind control. I feel like I would have more control in that realm than if I was being chased through the forest.

Okay. So you would choose Freddy over Michael Myers or Jason?

Yeah, yeah.

Interesting. I feel like I would go the opposite.

You think that you could.. how do you feel like you would escape Michael Myers and Jason? Would you just turn the tables on them, would you get a gun? You can't kill them.

Sheer will. I don't know. I'm scrappy and I feel like I am fast. But I just feel like Freddy, I would be fucked. I'm like, I have no control over my dreams, I would just be dead instantly. No hope.

I get that, being fast, that is quite an asset. Those guys are not fast, so I feel like you could outrun them. You don't have to be an Olympic track runner or whatever, but if they're after you, I feel like you would be like, I'm out of here. Are you the kind of person that just starts running without asking questions?

Yes. Ask questions later. I will investigate this later because I will be alive, hopefully, to investigate it later. I don't need to stick around and be like, what was that?

See, I feel like that's why our answers are correct for us, because I'm a little curious and a little not quick to be like, oh, someone's coming after me. I would be like, what is that? Who is that? And then I'm dead.

I think you chose correctly. We know our strengths and our weaknesses. That's how you get to be a final girl. You've got to know what your weaknesses are, and you've got to play to your strengths.

That's true. That's very true.

How do you think you would do in a Saw kind of situation?

Not great. No, I really wouldn't. I don't like pain. I think I would break pretty quickly and wouldn't last. No.

You don't think you could dig a key out from behind your eyeball?

No. I would prefer my Saw to be the AMC spoof. I can go to the theater, be taken over by the magic of movies or whatever, but no, that's it.

Let's say you are the final girl and you're about to face off with Freddy Krueger. What would you want your kill song to be? We'll pretend you can hear it while it's playing, because I feel like music is motivation.

Totally. I feel like it's got to be something driving. How about "Glycerine" by Bush? It's unexpected, so it's not hard hard, but it is like a driving beat, and I think it would motivate me to just keep stabbing.

I do have to also mention, I did say that you worked on a lot of comedy. I would be remiss if I did not take this opportunity to say, you also worked on Pepper Ann and Recess.

I know. I'm so glad. That was my first job. I went to USC in the film program with my emphasis in writing, and the first writing job I got was working for Disney animation on Pepper Ann, and I got to hire my friends who were giving tram tours at Universal Studios, and temping and stuff. We got to make 65 half hours of that show, and it was really like grad school for me because I got to take it from beginning to end and produce an actual thing. It was so fun, I loved it. My first writing job. My first other jobs are not as great.

Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?

I'm so excited that you love the movie. I'm thrilled it's out there and that people are finding it, and it's just fun. It's a fun, wild ride, and I'm excited to talk to you about it and just for people to go out and see it or I guess stream it, whatever.


I texted my mom immediately a few minutes into the movie, and told her to put it on. Also, my mom would 100% have bullied me if I went back in time and I was in high school with her.

That was so much fun for me, because it's so emotional, and her mom has already died in the movie. Now she sees her again, she's alive, and then she's like, "I hate you. Get off the court, loser. You're out, bitch." It's such a funny idea, your mom hating you when you're both peers.

Your mom just punking you left and right. Yeah. My mom is wonderful to me, but I think if she didn't know it was me and we went back in time, she maybe would've been a little bit of an asshole to me and blown weed in my face, and I would've been very straight-laced.

Yeah. Hardcore bullying.

Totally Killer is now streaming on Prime. Watch it with your mom if you can. If you're lucky enough to get to do that, do that because it's a good time.