Not too long ago, I chose Grady Hendrix’s 2016 novel My Best Friend’s Exorcism as one of my favorite horror novels of the 21st century so far, so it was with some measure of…trepidation? cautious excitement?…that I took the news that Amazon Studios was producing a film adaptation of it. I was pretty sure that any movie version of Hendrix’s brilliantly realized balance of horror, comedy, and genuine heartfelt emotion wasn’t going to be able to capture the essence of what made the novel great, which was not only that perfect harmony of elements that the author struck, but also the deeply explored friendship between the two teenage girls at the center of the story.
And it makes me a little bit sad to say, but my suspicions about the adaptation were mostly correct. While this is a fun, entertaining little slice of 80s retro awesomeness with some rad tunes and amusingly atrocious (but accurate) fashions, the movie is mostly just a shallow affair, and leans far more heavily on the comedy than the horror, toning down the book’s gruesomeness significantly.
Just as in the novel, the story revolves around sixteen-year-old Abby Rivers (played by Elsie Fisher, who earned a Golden Globe nomination for the 2018 film Eighth Grade) and her ride-or-die best friend, Gretchen Lang (played by Amiah Miller of 2017’s War for the Planet of the Apes). Unlike the book, the movie takes place entirely in 1988; the novel took time to travel back to 1982 and set up the two girls meeting as ten-year-olds and delineating their blossoming friendship over the ensuing six years. I get that there are time constraints with a film that aren’t present with a book, but that’s another reason that I feel like this would have made a better series than a stand-alone film; the tale has so much more impact when you really feel the weight of these two characters’ long relationship and their fierce, undying love for one another.
Anyway, the film jumps pretty quickly into the first inciting incident: Abby, Gretchen, and their two other friends/classmates Margaret (Rachel Ogechi Kanu) and Glee (Cathy Ang) are spending the weekend at Margaret’s parents’ lake house when they start playing with a Ouija board and then drop some acid brought by Margaret’s obnoxious chode of a boyfriend Wallace (Clayton Johnson). Nobody feels any particularly momentous effects from the LSD, but at some point during the night, Abby and Gretchen go off into the woods to explore an old abandoned house that’s the subject of urban legends about a local girl who was sacrificed there. The girls hear weird noises, and see some sort of unsettling shit, though at first they attribute it to the acid kicking in at last. But then something spooks them, and Abby flees, thinking that Gretchen is right behind her. Gretchen, meanwhile, is dragged into the bowels of the house by something unseen, but still hears Abby’s voice as though she is close by and looking for her.
When Abby and the other girls return to the house, they find Gretchen crying and freaking out, but they all think she’s just tripping balls. As the story goes on, though, it’s clear that something terrible happened to Gretchen in that house, as she subsequently starts to act completely differently: neglecting her previously on-point hair game and fashion sense, mouthing off to the nuns at their strict private school, and deliberately trying to set her friends against one another by planting fake love notes, openly flirting with Margaret’s boyfriend right in front of her, and saying cruel things that target her friends’ deepest insecurities.
Despite being the butt of some of Gretchen’s most vicious machinations, Abby persists in her efforts to help her best friend. She knows something is wrong, but she doesn’t know what, although she begins to suspect that Gretchen may have been raped in the abandoned house and is acting up because of PTSD. Believing this, she attempts an end-run around Gretchen by informing her parents and teachers what happened, but predictably, these hypocritical authority figures care more about the fact that Gretchen dropped acid than they do about the possibility of her being assaulted and possibly suffering from trauma.
Abby, out of desperation, eventually joins forces with a ridiculous, faith-based bodybuilder guy named Christopher Lemon (Chris Lowell), who is one of a trio of brothers who do silly religious revival shows mixed with weightlifting feats at schools and malls (and having grown up in the 1980s, I remember these kind of events were a bit of a thing for a time at private schools). Despite the guy’s doofery, he does immediately twig onto the fact that Gretchen is possessed by a demon, and is persuaded to perform the exorcism, if only so he can feel that he has finally earned the approval of his long-deceased mother.
These are all the exact same plot points from the book, but because the film must, by necessity, compress a great deal of the story into its short runtime, the whole thing feels somewhat rushed, and relationships and subplots aren’t given much room to breathe. Maybe the movie doesn’t feel that way to someone who hasn’t read the novel, but to me, it seemed as though a lot of the narrative was just skimming the surface of what made the book so special. Without all of that back-story and build-up of Abby and Gretchen’s friendship, all you’re left with is a mildly amusing, 80s-set teen comedy with a sprinkling of mild horror elements.
Put another way, there are already lots (and LOTS) of exorcism stories, so you really need to bring something amazing to the table to make one of them stand out from the pack. Grady Hendrix did that in his novel, taking all the tired exorcism tropes and using them to explore, not only the intensity of teenage female friendships, but also the manner in which girls find themselves and their own unique power. Without all of the emotional investment you felt with the book characters, the movie just seems a little like fluff. Don’t get me wrong; it’s fun fluff, and the two lead actresses are great in their roles, I just wish they had been given a little more substance to work with.
I also wish the film had tipped the scales more toward horror than comedy, though I admit I did laugh out loud at the exorcist’s ludicrous antics, which were a definite highlight of the movie’s third act (his character was also hilarious in the book, and that translates well here). I felt like I wanted more body horror and creepiness, though, like in the book, and more a sense of the stakes at play. As it is, this was just okay, and I got the sense too that it was aiming for a far younger demographic; there’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but I think the novel transcended considerations of age, gender, and era, and I’m not sure the movie really achieves that universality.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.