Amazon Prime’s New Possession Horror Comedy Captures The Terrifying Teen Experience, But It Needs More Laughs

Jan 2, 2023

A lakeside cabin, illicit substances, and a group of teenagers; that’s a set-up for a spooky tale as old as time. Audiences know the drill by now, and so does “My Best Friend’s Exorcism.” And there’s no better time to release a horror movie than in the lead-up to Halloween when audiences are looking to add a new title to their rotation of old genre favorites. It’s a crowded field, though, and hard for newcomers to avoid coming across as derivative while they pay homage to the classics that paved the way. Damon Thomas’s adaptation of Grady Hendrix‘s 2016 novel of the same name mostly avoids those pitfalls. The late ‘80s setting tips its hat to a genre that went into overdrive during that decade, but the Elsie Fisher-starring movie is at its best when it focuses on the friendship at its heart.  
Adolescence and possession go hand in hand in horror movies. Specifically, the genuine terror that a teenage girl may provoke simply by existing is the basis of this movie’s push-pull dynamic between good and evil. After all, the 1949 case that inspired William Peter Blatty’s “The Exorcist” novel was about a teenage boy, which was gender-flipped in Blatty’s novel and William Friedkin’s Oscar-winning 1973 adaptation. Regan (Linda Blair) is on the cusp of puberty, and the disturbing things she does with a crucifix while under the demon’s influence point to a preoccupation with girlhood, lost innocence, and sexuality. Not to mention that her mother is recently divorced and living a life under the influence of second-wave feminism. As far as analogies go, a lot is bubbling beneath the Catholic iconography that runs through the 1973 horror classic, namely teenage hormones.
And the extreme changes those hormones cause one’s personality and mood in high school provide a perfect overlap with supernatural narratives. “My Best Friend’s Exorcism” takes decades of storytelling that came before it to zero in on this dynamic that oscillates every teenager’s inner life between extremes of wholeness and heartbreak, of belonging and isolation. The romance of first love may leave a lasting mark (or one’s first demonic possession), but in this film, that’s not quite as potent as BFFs who go back to the fourth grade. 
South Carolina, 1988: Abby (Elsie Fisher) and Gretchen’s (Amiah Miller) friendship is about to be torn apart, as Gretchen’s family movies out of town in the summer, but the pair pledge to make it work long distance. While their home circumstances couldn’t be more different, they have been close since meeting at summer camp. Glee (Cathy Ang) and Margaret (Rachel Ogechi Kanu) round out their friends’ group, brimming with friction and fondness. The sophomore high school students take the opportunity to hang out at Margaret’s parents’ lakeside cabin for a weekend of revelry. During daylight hours, an urban legend about a creepy building close by is laughed off, but things take a bad turn as soon as it gets dark. Cue the Ouija boards and an apparent demonic possession, and suddenly, Gretchen isn’t the friend she used to be, and it’s up to Abby to figure out how to save her.
Ouija boards are the source of many ills in the horror genre. The parlor game turned licensed Hasbro toy wasn’t considered particularly terrifying until Regan contacted the other side in “The Exorcist.” Peer pressure also plays a part in what unfolds during the movie’s set-up, at a time when the D.A.R.E. program was in full swing. Jenna Lamia‘s script underbakes some of these elements, but it’s also clear she’s ticking off the expected genre references. Allusions to “Friday the 13th” and “The Evil Dead” are most potent during these sequences, while later give story beats give way to more contemporary movies like “Jennifer’s Body” and “Happy Death Day.”
The movie’s 1988 setting also removes the ability for Abby to Google what the hell happened to Gretchen and figure out why she’s acting so bizarrely. Instead, Abby turns to the source of all information when you were a teen in the ’80s: magazines like “Seventeen.” Again, this is another element established early on when the duo takes a best friend quiz. It’s aspects like this and the pair’s LYLAS sign-off (“love you like a sister”) that show Gen-X fingerprints all over this script, and the attention to detail with the costume and production design is equally striking. Each teenage bedroom is appropriately adorned with friendship photographs and pop band posters (in this case, Culture Club). Designer Ariyela Wald-Cohain ensures everything from Abby’s wrist full of bracelets to Gretchen’s acid wash denim jacket also sartorially nods to this era.
Thomas and Lami use similar references for comedic laughs. “This is Lacoste!” is a hilarious reaction by horndog Wallace (Clayton Royal Johnson) to getting drenched by an upsetting vomit comet that emphasizes the label-loving period. Wallace is the fracture point that disrupts the group’s otherwise harmonious appeal in the movie, and some of its less-defined moments stem from his relationship with Margaret. The film’s runtime clocks in just shy of the 100-minute mark, and while “Exorcism” never feels like it’s overstaying its welcome, there remain underdeveloped storylines within the friendship group, most of them due to Wallace.
Elsie Fisher has already proved adept at adolescent roles well in her breakout role in “Eighth Grade,” while also dealing with isolation and terror as Annie WIlkes’ daughter in “Castle Rock.” This is another outstanding performance from the actress that covers a wide spectrum of emotions, from Abby’s vulnerability being turned against her to her determination in the face of something as terrifying as her best friend possessed. Miller, Ang, and Kanu also have moments exhibiting the extremes of this age when coupled with the supernatural, as each girl has to confront what is gnawing away inside them—in some cases, quite literally. But Lamia also weaves into the script more relatable concerns that get to the core of each girl’s fears, like Abby’s insecurity about her skin, and how that anxiety about her looks becomes weaponized later in the film. These adolescent fears are familiar, but Thomas does an effective job giving them a horror-tinged face-lift that feels both fresh and universal.
Later, Christopher Lowell offers a much-needed injection of humor as an evangelical wrestler called Christian Lemon. Everything from his ridiculous hair to the show he puts on at the high school with his brothers is a scene-stealer; and as a horror comedy, “Exorcism” could use both more laughs and scares. The film is neither funny nor scary enough, although viewers’ mileage may vary on the latter. Compared to “Evil,” on Parmount+, which has perfected a blend of these themes for three seasons now, “Exorcism” comes up a little short. But what “My Best Friend’s Exorcism” excels at is demonstrating that while demons are scary, a world without your best friend is even more terrifying. [B-]   

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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