A slumber party riff on “Jennifer’s Body” that chews on some of the same material without any of that cult classic’s bite, high school horror-comedy “My Best Friend’s Exorcism” isn’t funny enough to get away with so few genuine scares, and it isn’t scary enough to save most of its biggest laughs for the final act (where they’re laundered through one of the only male characters in this story about the effects of misogynistic self-loathing on female friendships).
But that alone isn’t reason enough to write off the year’s first taste of Halloween candy, which often benefits from the low expectations of direct-to-streaming content, and sometimes — in amusingly shocking ways — manages to exceed them. Whenever I was ready to dismiss this ’80s throwback as a piece of distinctly 21st century filler, Elsie Fisher would suddenly tap into my deepest teenage insecurities, scream “the power of Boy George compels you!” in an effort to chase a demon out of another girl’s body, or step aside to reveal an Arrakis-sized tapeworm crawling out of a classmate’s mouth. That last effect, which is way too gross for it to matter how fake it looks, offers a fitting metaphor for a movie whose nightmarish teenage insecurities are struggling to escape from an underbaked story that just wants to fit in on your Prime homepage.
Every bit as raw and believable here as she was in “Eighth Grade” (even though the material is considerably less so), Fisher plays Abby, a Jewish scholarship student at a posh Catholic school in one of those classic suburban towns that slasher movies helped to invent. Abby has bad skin and a mop of brown hair that she hasn’t quite figured out what to do with, but she also has the most wonderful best friend someone like her could ever imagine. Blonde, rich, and WASPy as hell, Gretchen (Amiah Miller, showing flashes of a young Amanda Seyfried) would usually be the mean girl in a movie like this — a role that Miller leans into with relish after her character is possessed by one of Satan’s oldest legionnaires — but she’s adorably ride-or-die for her BFF Abby in a way that neither of them take for granted.
Whatever the faults of Jenna Lamia’s script, which she adapted from horror fiend Grady Hendrix’s novel of the same name, it crucially recognizes how rare it was to find such mutually supportive friendship at a time when culture was so determined to pit young girls against each other (a magazine quiz that Abby and Gretchen take together seems designed to leave them jealous and paranoid). These girls hold hands at school — laughing off the daily barrage of gay jokes — speak in pig latin when no one’s listening, and look out for each other with such protectiveness that other potential outcasts are naturally drawn into their group of friends (including a closeted Asian girl named Glee and a body-conscious Black student named Margaret, played by Cathy Ang and Rachel Ogechi Kanu, respectively).
Tiffany is the biggest thing to happen to malls since the escalator, evangelical Christianity is creeping into the mainstream, and moral conservatism is so en vogue that anyone who even thinks about swimming against the tides is branded as a freak of nature. Director Damon Thomas only rigs up a small handful of jump-scares, but it’s no surprise that the first (and most effective) of them all finds someone leaping at the camera in a Reagan mask. Needless to say, these girls need each other.
But everything starts to unravel when a night at Gretchen’s lake house ends with some weak LSD and — unbeknownst to anyone else — the host being possessed by a demon. Abby initially assumes that Gretchen is mad at her because she ran away when things got chaotic (an argument that doesn’t hold nearly enough weight for all of the emotion this movie asks it to carry), but her suspicions grow more severe as Gretchen’s symptoms get worse. Not only is her best friend suddenly cruel and sullen, but she projectile vomits across the table at lunch and refuses to shower no matter how bad she reeks.
Also, one of the cheesy Christian bodybuilders who comes to perform at their school (“lift yourselves up for the lord!”) looks at Gretchen as if he’s seen the devil itself. He’s played by “Glow” star Christopher Lowell — reliably funny despite fumbling in and out of a film that mistakes comedic relief for tonal balance — and the fear that Abby sees in his eyes is what finally convinces her to consider a supernatural explanation for what she had assumed to be the aftershocks of a sexual assault.
“My Best Friend’s Exorcism” fumbles that transition almost as poorly as it does the demon’s ultimate reveal, as the difficult scenes of Abby grappling with such real-world horrors are unsupported by a story that doesn’t have the stomach to reckon with them. A scene in which Gretchen describes her nightly battle with the demon — who comes into her bedroom, sits on her stomach, and searches for a way into her skin — is as harrowing as it is misplaced in a movie that hints at a degree of trauma it would rather dilute than explore.
There’s something indivisibly honest to the way that Abby’s concerns eat away at her friendships — nobody wants to surrender their hard-won happiness — but there’s also something undeniably facile to the way that “My Best Friend’s Exorcism” pivots from overtures of rape to an array of Regina George-level antics (if the movies have taught me anything, it’s that you should never mess with any kind of protein bars or shakes that a blonde high school girl says she imported from Scandinavia). The film’s subject would seem to set the table for some more unsparing (and/or adult) coming-of-age scares, and its cast is certainly up for the challenge, but Lamia and Thomas ease off the gas whenever things get too heavy, using humor to undercut the horror where a more confident film might use it to sharpen its teeth.
And so things wind up with a whimper of a third act, complete with a Dobby-ass demon who wouldn’t scare a kindergartener and an abject lack of emotional follow-through on any of the film’s various subplots. There are flashes of a much better movie throughout “My Best Friend’s Exorcism,” but the one we get just isn’t self-possessed enough to hold onto them for long.
“My Best Friend’s Exorcism” is now streaming on Prime Video.