Dir: Damon Thomas. Starring: Elsie Fisher, Amiah Miller, Cathy Ang, Rachel Ogechi Kanu. Cert 15, 96 minutes
The “BFF Quiz” was a staple of the Eighties teen girl magazine. Back then, the media treated young women with open contempt. Female friendship was deemed too fickle and too poisonous to be determined by feelings – no, the only way to know if your bestie was really your bestie was to have them answer 12 hypothetical questions. Would they tell you if your new Esprit skirt was actually hideous? Would they get jealous if you started dating one of the popular boys? Would they douse your body in holy water if a supernatural entity took possession of your soul?
In My Best Friend’s Exorcism, banishing demons is the ultimate test of teen girl loyalty. It’s a devilishly smart and self-aware take on the current trend for Eighties horror homage, lovingly adapted from Grady Hendrix’s 2016 novel of the same name. The film is set in a suburban haven copy-and-pasted from your favourite John Hughes film, though here with a distinctly Catholic spin. Two best friends, Abby (Elsie Fisher) and Gretchen (Amiah Miller), savour their last few weeks together before they’re separated by state lines.
But one bad acid trip later and Gretchen is irrevocably changed. Are her vacant stares and projectile vomiting symptoms of a terrible comedown, or something altogether more satanic? Like Hendrix’s book, the film adheres closely to horror’s usual signposts and trademarks. But there’s a rough-and-ready glee to My Best Friend’s Exorcism that feels reminiscent of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead. A bloodshot eyeball watches our heroes from the dark. A slick and sticky monster worm crawls out from a girl’s mouth. A pot-bellied gremlin scarpers along the floorboards.
The film is dressed in the era’s lingo (“What’s your malfunction?”) and aesthetic. Help, for example, arrives in the form of an evangelist gym bro (Christopher Lowell), who takes regular breaks from battling the forces of hell in order to protein load. But it’s also refreshing to see how earnestly director Damon Thomas, working off a script by Jenna Lamia, approaches the story’s core metaphor. An Eighties setting may feel like an easy sell in the age of Stranger Things, but the sight of a dirtbag high school boy (Clayton Royal Johnson) gallivanting about in a Nancy Reagan mask is a stark reminder of why the decade’s moral conservatism, championed by Reagan and her husband, became such a fertile breeding ground for horror. The devil, here, is the destabilising voice in a teenage girl’s head that warns against deviating from the norm. “If you aren’t thin, submissive and heterosexual, you’re a freak,” the voice seems to whisper.
Fisher, who previously bottled teen anxiety in Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade (2018), carefully moulds Abby as both an extension of the John Hughes protagonist and a deconstruction of it. She’s sunnily relatable like Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles but flinty like Winona Ryder in Heathers. Even as all hell breaks loose, Fisher keeps close the one essential truth of My Best Friend’s Exorcism: friendship is sacred. No matter what any trashy magazine quiz might say.