Synopsis – Teen best friends Abby and Gretchen grapple with an otherworldly demon that takes up residence in Gretchen’s body.
My Take – Acting as a mix of both high school satire and exorcist horror, author Grady Hendrix‘s 2016 novel, My Best Friend’s Exorcism, was certainly a delight to read and easily among my favorites this past few years. As a result, I was actually looking forward to seeing the story play out on screen. Especially considering how it was in good hands – Damon Thomas, who despite making his feature directorial debut with this one has earned his rank due to his TV credits that includes the likes of Penny Dreadful and Killing Eve, and actress-writer Jenna Lamia (Resident Alien).
But while there’s certainly enough talent involved to have made this one an easy success, the film adaptation couldn’t seem to fuse around the cleverness and insight that turned Hendrix’s book into a bestseller. Sure, it is fine in its own realm of existence but without a doubt lacks the charm, depth and weight of the novel.
With a very short 97-minute run time to its name, the film feels very rushed and fails to make any connection with the main characters as most of the back story and bonding has been ditched in favor of getting to the horror elements faster. And with very little interest conjured from the filmmakers to properly develop their characters, there’s little incentive to stay interested.
Making matters worse for the ’80s-set horror-comedy is that it takes a lackluster old-school approach to the happenings, with none of the horrifying or comedic hijinks sticking a landing. Yes, the film may find an audience with the YA generation, but considering how it doesn’t really have anything that makes it stand out from countless other similar genre mashups, it will soon be lost in oblivion as the one that didn’t do justice to its source material.
Set in 1988, the story follows Abby Rivers (Elsie Fisher) and Gretchen Lang (Amiah Miller), two average school besties, who are enjoying their last year at catholic school together before Gretchen and her family moves away. Together with Margaret Chisolm (Rachel Ogechi Kanu) and Glee Tanaka (Cathy Ang), they’re a well-rounded girl gang of on-screen stereotypes from Abby’s self-conscious acne masking to Margaret’s flaunting of PDA as the only member with a boyfriend, Wallace Stoney (Clayton Johnson).
However, their lives change on a weekend trip to the lake house, when the four end up ingesting LSDs brought by Wallace, and while Margaret and Glee join him in the river, Abby and Gretchen find themselves stumble across an old house that was supposedly the setting for a Satanic sacrifice, which the two on a whim enter to explore.
But when they stumble across something weird across the corner of one of the rooms, the two quickly rush out, only to be separated as Gretchen gets attacked by something. While she initially appears unharmed, very soon Gretchen begins exhibiting behavioral changes taking on a more malicious and antagonistic attitude towards her friends especially Abby, convincing her that something evil is lurking behind her personality makeover.
Though billed as a horror/comedy the straightforward possession story struggles to overcome its low stakes and rushed narrative. Despite the ‘80s high school setting and the creative ways Gretchen hurts her friends, the narrative never shifts from the exorcism formula. Underneath the nostalgia lies the familiar story we’ve seen before. The film tells us that Abby and Gretchen have been lifelong best friends, but there’s no sense of history or chemistry between the pair that indicates a strong friendship. Unlike the novel, which can afford these relationships to develop organically, the adaptation’s brisk runtime hurdles through each plot point.
We’re never as invested in the central friendship as the story demands, and subplots get swept aside quickly. Hence, it becomes tough to care as the demon wreaks havoc on Abby’s social life, and the subpar visuals further undermine the film during the more ambitious moments. Making matters worse is that the film isn’t horrifying nor funny.
In fact, it never even really feels like it is trying to be either of those things. I can think of only a small handful of times where the film attempts to get a laugh, and it never comes off. And the horror side of things is more just nastiness than anything else.
Here, both director Damon Thomas and writer Jenna Lamia have missed an opportunity to use Gretchen’s possession as a metaphor for the petty machinations teenage girls go through to undermine their friends so that they can feel better about themselves. Thomas and Lamia used the Catholic School background as an opportunity to poke fun at the orthodoxy that is preached but it’s broad, without any undercurrent of meaningful humor. There is a bit of exploration when it comes to comparing demonic possession with rape. But is quickly brushed aside to get through with its check points.
Performance wise, Amiah Miller deftly handles the film’s toughest role and is good enough to ground even the shakiest scenes, sadly, Elsie Fisher, who looks so obviously miscast, in her second bad horror film (the infamous Texas Chainsaw Massacre) is forced to do what she can do with whatever is handed to her. The usually fun Christopher Lowell struggles to get a laugh from the weirdly yogurt-obsessed, bible-thumping meathead-slash-aspiring exorcist, Christian Lemon. In supporting roles, Rachel Ogechi Kanu, Cathy Ang and Clayton Johnson are alright. On the whole, ‘My Best Friend’s Exorcism’ is a poorly crafted adaption that does not deliver on its promising premise and expected charm.
Directed – Damon Thomas
Rated – R
Run Time – 96 minutes