As our collective fascination with 1980s pop culture tirelessly continues—particularly in the world of horror—it was perhaps inevitable that the novels of Grady Hendrix would get adapted, especially since they’re pastiches and subversions of popular genre tropes. My Best Friend’s Exorcism marks the first adaptation of his work—directed by Damon Thomas from a screenplay from Jenna Lamia—and it ticks all of the boxes expected from a supernatural teen horror flick. But although the film makes some notable insights about the teenage psyche, there isn’t quite enough ‘there’ there to elevate the film above the ranks of average horror programming.
When BFFs Abby (Elsie Fisher) and Gretchen (Amiah Miller) accompany their friends Margaret (Rachel Ogechi Kanu) and Glee (Cathy Ang) to Margaret’s family’s summer cabin for a night of spooky bonding, the girls drop acid at the urging of Margaret’s party-crashing boyfriend Wallace (Clayton Royal Johnson). When Abby and Gretchen wander off to investigate an eerie shack out in the woods, they get separated and Gretchen is lured into the grasp of a mysterious force. Afterward, Gretchen’s behavior becomes erratic, first paranoid and ill, then vindictive and hostile, pushing her relationship with Abby to its breaking point. However, Abby eventually uncovers that this isn’t the result of some drug-induced behavioral shift, but a possession.
What’s perhaps most surprising about My Best Friend’s Exorcism is how well the first half of the film works as an examination of teenage girl relationships without any of the accompanying supernatural elements. Abby’s first suspicion is a mistaken belief that Gretchen’s bizarre personality shift was caused by a sexual assault in the abandoned shack, so she attributes her friend’s experiences of whispered voices and night paralysis to PTSD.
Not only does this add an interesting metaphorical level to what we learn is a literal possession, but it also hints at why teenage girls in particular might lash out after traumatic life events when they have no other emotional outlets. That initial thoughtfulness makes it all the more unfortunate, then, when Thomas makes a shift to prioritize traditional horror antics. Gretchen’s escalating social and physical violence toward her friend group makes for some extreme, if rather bloodless, conflict, but the film eventually succumbs to the inevitability of the events of the film’s title—sadly for viewers far sooner than for Abby.
And as for the exorcism itself, the third act is torpedoed rather sharply by a bizarre shift toward the exaggeratedly comedic. Evangelizing bodybuilder and amateur exorcist Christian Lemon (Christopher Lowell) feels airdropped in from a much sillier movie, and his self-aggrandizing insecurities feel at tonal odds with the much more genuine performances of Fisher and Miller. The intended purpose seems to have been to highlight the absurdity of using Christianity as a cure-all for life’s traumas, but in practice, it’s like watching a clown bust into a surgery, and Pagliacci isn’t what the doctor ordered.
It’s a good thing, then, that Fisher and Miller are so successful at selling the emotional core of the film, even amongst all of that noise. Miller can take Gretchen from inner turmoil to sociopathic coldness in an instant, even as she is committing horrific acts against those she loves. Fisher is extremely convincing as a good friend trying to do the right thing, even as she reckons with a persistent assault to the foundations of that friendship. The film falls apart without those central performances, and these promising young performers are absolutely up to the task.
My Best Friend’s Exorcism, in spite of its more discordant eccentricities, adds modest thrills to a spooky season watchlist. Though its payoff is less satisfying thematically than its setup, Thomas and Lamia still take a fun stab at teenage horror. Unfortunately, its most horrific elements are the ones most in need of an exorcism.