The Christopher Landon format – take one popular fantasy classic and add a slasher element – is here deployed by director Nahnatchka Khan and writers David Matalon, Sasha Perl-Raver and Jen D’Angelo.
In 1987, the town of Vernon was terrorised by ‘the Sweet Sixteen Killer’ – who wore an oversized Max Headroom/Beavis mask and stabbed three sixteen year-old girls on successive nights over Halloween – but the killer then stopped, though there’s a lingering macabre tour/podcast culture about it. In the present day, high school senior Jamie (Kiernan Shipka) mildly squabbles with her parents Pam (Julie Bowen) and Blake (Lochlyn Munro) and heads off for Halloween hijinx with her best pal Amelia (Kelcey Mawema). While greeting trick or treaters, Pam is attacked by a returning killer – or a copycat – and, though she’s had years of preparation for murder attempts – is fatally stabbed (sixteen times, as per Sweet Sixteen canon). But, as it happens, for her science project, Amelia has turned a photo-booth into a time machine, using notes made by her mother Lauren (Kimberly Huie) in high school – the drawback is that it doesn’t work until the killer adds a metal element by stabbing the machine while attacking Jamie, who is sent back to 1987 and given a shot at changing history by thwarting the killer before he gets going … though, as per Back to the Future rules (a new-ish movie in 1987), she’s more shocked to find out what her parents (Olivia Holt, Charlie Gillespie) were like as teenagers, with Pam head of ‘the Mollies’, a Heathers-like pack of Molly Ringwald-obsessed mean girls (who are on the killer’s death list, and frankly probably deserve it).
Shortcutting the plot, Jamie easily persuades teen Lauren (Troy L. Johnson, from Let’s Scare Julie) that she’s from the future – I always get a grumpy when time travelling folks throw out references (to Scream) they must know past people won’t get, but it’s done sweetly enough here – and narrow-focuses on the killer case rather than, say, advise investments in IT stock or not to buy all those triple-bagged variant issue #1 comics in the 1990s. There are suspects a-plenty – though the mystery isn’t too tricky – and a lot of Heathers-style humour about crass, appalling folk whose crassness is even more appalling seen from a 2023 perspective – Liana Liberato, always welcome, is especially funny as the dim, nasty first victim while Jeremy Monn-Djasgnar is a hoot as the House Party-hairdoed slob jock asshole in the pack. A good recurring gag is Jamie preparing elaborate cover stories only for unsuspicious folk just to give her access to everything with a shrug and there are some amusing needle-drops (mostly from earlier in the ‘80s, to be nit-picky) with Bananarama’s ‘Venus’ and (accompanying a murder) that horrible ‘Lady in Red’ song.
It does back-project its wokeness onto 1987 a bit, while upbraiding folk in the past for racism (the high school Red Devils team has a Native American mascot) and cruelty (a key offscreen character is called ‘Fat Trish’, though a tiny cameo photo suggests she wasn’t even that hefty) but presenting a multiracial victim pool of horrible kids (Ella Choi is funny as the dim stoner who’ll grow up to be a hateful Sheriff). It’s also a little soft on its central characters – we have to intuit that the heroine’s Mom was scared straight by the deaths of her three ghastliest friends and became a better person but in the revised timeline there are some judgy beats missing and it’s a slight cop-out that teen Pam turns out not to be in on the original sin (by chance, we suspect) which triggers the killing spree. It winds up with a scene which oddly seems to owe more to Doctor Who (the tag of Enemy of the World) than BTTF as heroine and killer struggle in a fairground attraction-cum-time machine. Shipka, of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, would have become a bigger star in the 1980s or ‘90s, when teen-themed rom-coms, horror films, fantasies, dramas or mysteries could be breakout box office. This Halloween, Blumhouse released (to great success) the very so-so Five Nights at Freddy’s to theatres but this much more satisfying picture went to Amazon Prime.