The year is 1988 and the United States is in the throes of the Satanic Panic. High school sophomores Abby and Gretchen have been best friends since fourth grade.
Author Gary Hendrix described his 2016 book My Best Friend’s Exorcism as “Beaches meets The Exorcist.” The movie adaptation from Amazon Prime, like the book, is a snarl of teen dramedy, horror, and plenty of winking ‘80s caricature, but it lacks some of the sharp character and nostalgic charm of the original novel. The film really tries its best, but ultimately collapses from exhaustion as it is unsure of its stature between satire and scares. It gets the closest when poking fun at the conservative Christian values that fueled the Satanic Panic movement, but overall the movie is a light teen satire with a horror wrapper.
Elsie Fisher (Eighth Grade) stars in the brisk movie alongside Amiah Miller, Rachel Ogechi Kanu as Margaret, and Cathy Ang as Glee, with Damon Thomas (“Penny Dreadful”) directing. All the actors are capable in their respective roles, but the movie is desperately jockeying for the same nostalgic warmth of Stranger Things and its ‘80s music and movie vibes.
Hendrix’s novels like Horrorstor, set in a cursed IKEA store, and Satanic Panic, which tackles the Christian movement, also had a keen sense of place but the humor never truly supplanted the horror of each situation. (Side note - Both books are being adapted as well.) The comedy and horror were equal partners in most cases and you see dregs of this in Amazon’s adaptation with the Lemon Brothers, a Christian bodybuilder group who puts on an educational show at the girls’ high school and are oblivious to the amount of innuendo their assembly for the kids contains. Although little fragments of ‘80s nostalgic ephemera from the book like teen magazine quizzes, music, and movie posters are pushed more to the background in the movie, the characters of Abby and Gretchen complement each other, which helps when unusual things start to go down after an unforeseen trip to an abandoned cabin in the woods.
One unique element that is put into focus for My Best Friend’s Exorcism is the notion of the demon that attacks Gretchen being taken by her high school circle of friends and her BFF as a sexual assault. The subject matter is not explored as far as a more modern-set movie would take it, but it’s still a different way of framing what is a pretty straightforward exorcism tale. Also, Gretchen essentially turns into a mean girl when the demon takes over, which is a great part ripped right out of the original novel. My Best Friend’s Exorcism also has a few great scenes early on that flip body horror on its head as it intermingles those scenes of horror with school bullying and teen girl insecurities.
These early scenes are unsettling but are a bit of misdirection. Don’t expect a climatic exorcism scene to rock a bedroom set for the end of this teen tale, though. It’s there in practice, but it’s set up more for some chuckles than chattering teeth. If you are seeking out a scary movie this weekend there are better sources to tap, but My Best Friend’s Exorcism does still have a unique teen lens on demonic possession, and that sets it apart from the usual gruesome and profane parts that come with this subgenre of horror. This demon tests teen friendship more than religious convictions. It’s unfortunate that some of the wittiness of the book is vomited out for this version, but thankfully more people will get introduced to Hendrix’s great writing through these upcoming film and TV adaptations.
Movie Score: 3/5
You can stream My Best Friend’s Exorcism on Amazon Prime on Friday, September 30 and the book is available as well.