Synopsis: The year is 1988. High school sophomores Abby and Gretchen have been best friends since fourth grade. But after an evening of skinny-dipping goes disastrously wrong, Gretchen begins to act…different.
Stars: Elsie Fisher, Amiah Miller, Cathy Ang, Rachel Ogechi Kan, Christopher Lowell
Director: Damon Thomas
Running Length: 97 minutes
TMMM Score: (2/10)
Review: If you grew up devouring YA novels from Christopher Pike, Caroline B. Cooney, Diane Hoh, or R.L. Stine, you might have graduated to an writer like Grady Hendrix. An author with an ear for cultural artifacts and a mesmerizing way of triggering nostalgia in the reader, Hendrix knows his stuff. Over the last decade, Hendrix has become popular with a run of books that celebrate, emulate, and spring out of the paperback novels and multiplex mainstays that most of this generation of parentals will recognize. His 2021 novel, ‘The Final Girl Support Group’, was a fantastic slasher/thriller chock full of references to classic and modern horror films. You can get lost in his 2017 non-fiction ‘Paperbacks from Hell’, which traces the evolution of horror softcovers of the ’70s and ’80s.
Another popular title in his bibliography was ‘My Best Friend’s Exorcism’, written in 2016. The hefty tome is over 300 pages and is a fun, if slightly ponderous, high school adolescent horror regarding besties and the demonic possession that comes between them. The book’s cover drew me in, and while I struggled to finish it, I was more than happy to see it getting a film version because it already read like a movie as I was blazing through the final pages. Released by Amazon Studios a month before Halloween during a resurgence in well-received fright flicks (Smile, The Black Phone, Barbarian, House of Darkness), My Best Friend’s Exorcism should have been an easy add to that growing list of next-gen terror titles.
Sadly, this film from director Damon Thomas and adapted by Jenna Lamia is a huge, almost shockingly pedestrian, letdown. Set in 1988 with a production design that seems to have used the B-52’s ‘Love Shack’ video for inspiration, it’s an ugly-looking movie with the acting coming up short too. There were moments early on when I thought Thomas and Lamia had worked with Hendrix to fashion the film into more of a parody than outright horror, attempting to take broad strokes of comedy to mix in with the paranormal elements. My suspicions were proved wrong time and time again by a charmless cast that didn’t seem to get the joke being told and a film that didn’t serve any real purpose.
Best friends Abby (Elsie Fisher, Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and Gretchen (Amiah Miller, The Water Man) have been close since childhood. Both know the deepest secrets of the other, their tiniest insecurities, and continue to lift one another through the tough times at school. Abby struggles with the onset of embarrassing acne and a secret crush for one of the teachers at their Catholic high school. Gretchen is from a goody-two-shoes family but longs to be a little wild. They hang out with Margaret (Rachel Ogechi Kan) and Glee (Cathy Ang, Over the Moon), who seem to be their friends, but more like their frenemies at times.
Margaret’s been spending more time with her bo-hunk boyfriend Wallace, annoying the other three (and Glee, who harbors a crush on her best friend), but the upcoming weekend at Margaret’s cabin is all about them. Then Wallace shows up with LSD, and the slightly tripping Abby and Gretchen stumble into the abandoned building near Margaret’s house that’s said to be haunted. There, the girls are separated, and Gretchen is overtaken by something evil. When she returns, she’s not the same Gretchen. At first, she’s withdrawn and lashes out at her best friend in hurtful ways. After a pivotal transformation, she emerges as something much more problematic: A seemingly well-adjusted high schooler with an innocent face that no one would believe could commit the kinds of terrible acts about to take place. And only a best friend like Abby could stop her.
I know there’s a good movie here. It could have and should have been made. Something was lost in the translation from the page to the screen, and it’s so disappointing to witness. Starting with that gaudy production design that takes every ugly late ’80s design choice and trots it out like it’s runway ready or set to appear in Architectural Digest. The neon colors, pastels, oversize sweaters, and scrunchies can look good when done correctly, but in My Best Friend’s Exorcism, it feels like the actors were thrown into a pile of clothes, and whatever they came out wearing is what they were in for the day.
Then there’s the acting which, to put it kindly, is not terrible but shouldn’t be this bad for a movie at this level. Abby and Gretchen are supposed to be lifelong best friends. However, there is no chemistry or camaraderie present between Fisher and Miller, with Fisher especially looking like she’s never met Miller each time they’re in a scene together. Miller tries to pull things together, later emerging the victor out of her costars, but that’s not saying much. I was most sorry for everyone because they wore such awful clothes.
On top of everything, My Best Friend’s Exorcism is frequently unnecessarily mean, even where high school movies are concerned. Digs at skin problems, eating disorders, and lesbianism, come off as cheap low blows without any creative energy behind them. I haven’t even mentioned the scene with the 11-foot tapeworm, have I? Just wait until you see how that one resolves itself. Perhaps coming out in the middle of all these other scary films aimed at the same target audience will send this one to the graveyard fast. No exorcism required. A really wasted opportunity in my mind.