The best part of My Best Friend’s Exorcism is Christopher Lowell, showing up around the last lap as a Bible-thumping, bodybuilding wannabe exorcist, who chickens out the minute he sees a vision of his dead mom. Whatever film everyone else involved thinks they’re making, they’re not in the same one as Lowell; he’s on a wavelength of self-aware and immersive, toeing the line where ‘80s nostalgia is separated from ‘80s parody. Frankly, an entire movie based around his character, who actually has a character to speak of, sounds like a good time, but let’s be careful what we wish for. Chances are, that movie would turn out to be a drag, too.
My Best Friend’s Exorcism’s ingredient list is sumptuous: Christopher Landon producing an adaptation of the same-named Grady Hendrix novel starring Elsie Fisher. Damon Thomas directs. This is the least eye-catching name of the lot, but with so much talent allocated everywhere else, you’d be perfectly rational to anticipate goodness from the film. You may also be sorely disappointed. Somewhere in the transition from page to screen, Hendrix’s work was pressed and blanched, reduced to a flavorless porridge that doesn’t reflect his author’s voice in the slightest. Everything here is affected or flat, from the scare scenes to happier, upbeat moments between teenage girls on the precipice of seismic life changes. Ostensibly, this is a movie about best friends and the exorcism that comes between them. Only the second part of the title lands.
Fisher plays Abby, on track for college. Amiah Miller plays Gretchen, about to move two states away. They’ve been pals since fourth grade, through thick and thin, but not thick enough to keep a demon from screwing up their bond. After a night hanging out at a lakeside cabin with the rest of their friend circle, Glee (Cathy Ang) and Margaret (Rachel Ogechi Kanu), the girls incur the wrath of a malicious spirit who slowly wriggles its way into Gretchen’s body, bent on expelling her soul. Abby sees that something’s wrong with her friend, and no one else does, because of course: Horror. What would a genre film be if everyone believed the protagonist’s claims of demonic possession?
Abby doesn’t make that claim at first, though. She suspects Gretchen has been raped by Wallace (Clayton Royal Johnson), Margaret’s boyfriend, reading all the signs of Gretchen’s possession as signs of her sexual trauma. This lands My Best Friend’s Exorcism in the same territory as Fede Álvarez’s 2013 Evil Dead remake, but that movie has the sense to at least try wrapping the rape metaphor up in copious gore. (Also, the rapist is a tree.) My Best Friend’s Exorcism bangs the audience about the head with the allegorical connection between rape of the body and rape of the soul without paying off the part it plays in creating conflict between Abby and Gretchen. Granted, Abby is a kid. She needs someone to explain the signs to her, which is why she consults a magazine for guidance. But given how much focus is put on the possibility of Gretchen’s rape, and how that dovetails with her friendship with Abby, the resolution is too pat, too compressed.
When Gretchen and Abby explore the spooky haunted landmark where Gretchen meets the demon who tries to claim her soul, they promise not to leave one another behind if Shit Gets Real. When Shit Gets Real, Abby skedaddles and leaves Gretchen in her dust. My Best Friend’s Exorcism hardly confronts this act of cowardice except when, in moments of apparent clarity, the story demands a confrontation. You would think a character detail like this would serve as the film’s primary thread. You would be wrong. Like so much else in My Best Friend’s Exorcism, Abby’s fearful abandonment of Gretchen is textual, and left without substantial address. Thomas, working off of Jenna Lamia’s teleplay, is simply filling in the dots.
Eventually the time arrives for Lowell to play his part, and when he’s involved in Abby’s charge to save Gretchen’s soul, My Best Friend’s Exorcism loosens into the film it should’ve been from the start. For that brief stretch, we see what could’ve been, which of course just makes the listless production surrounding it twice as frustrating. It’s as if the picture has nothing better to do but while away minutes until Lowell appears, when in fact it has everything better to do, but not the will to do it. Details from the set design to the effects down to the performances feel as if they were constructed without a good night’s rest; the cast looks tired, in dire need of an afternoon nap. In Fisher’s case, that lackadaisical quality is a great disappointment. This is her second 2022 horror film playing a high school student forced to confront unreasonable evil, but unlike Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which at least tried, if clumsily, to give her pathos, Fisher finds fewer footholds in Abby. She tries. She can’t walk on air, though.
That’s the stuff of My Best Friend’s Exorcism: Air, and not the kind that keeps a film nimble and lighthearted. How an adaptation like this can end up feeling so empty with such rich source material to mine is as much a mystery as Gretchen’s change in attitude is to her friends and family—but Thomas can’t claim the excuse of demonic intervention.
Director: Damon Thomas
Writer: Jenna Lamia, Grady Hendrix
Starring: Elsie Fisher, Amiah Miller, Rachel Ogechi Kanu, Cathy Ang, Clayton Royal Johnson, Christopher Lowell
Release Date: September 30, 2022 (Amazon)
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.