Amazon Prime’s My Best Friend’s Exorcism channels the poison-clique satire of classics like Heathers, and the story is imbued with the infernal revisionist energy of more contemporary fare like House of the Devil and The Last Exorcism. The other-side-of-the-tracks Abby (Elsie Fisher) and her rich Sissy Spacek-lookalike BFF Gretchen (Amiah Miller) get more than they bargained for after a slumber party acid-drop leads to a demonic stowaway latching onto Gretchen. The near-catatonic Gretchen stumbles out of the woods near dawn with things quickly spiraling out of control and getting much weirder for Abby. Based on the book of the same name by horror novelist Grady Hendrix, Damon Thomas’s adaptation is a demon-themed delight demonstrating that possession tales are all about girls.
Riffing on popular horror references, notably how possession-themed cinema is largely considered conservative horror. The movie has a lived-in 1980s aesthetic, an incomparable soundtrack, and projectile vomiting, and it is a blast. MBFE is an ironic deconstruction of demon possession in popular culture, playing with the roles of women in possession tales, exemplifying how gender-specific the stories routinely are and could potentially be read as abuse parables. The fact it takes place during the era of America’s Satanic Panic adds an even creepier dimension that makes MBFE topical and reflective of our current climate surrounding this conversation.
After the incident in the woods, things don’t return to normal. Gradually, Gretchen begins to lose interest in personal hygiene, she is plagued by night terrors, a nasty ring of cold sores circles her mouth, and she urinates into a bin. An understandably worried Abby presses her for information, and Gretchen confides in her about a nightly visitor. Abby instantly jumps to conclusions and stages an intervention. First approaching Gretchen’s upwardly mobile parents Pony (Nathan Anderson) and Grace Lang (Cynthia Evans), who are less concerned about a possible assault on their daughters than they are about casual drug use. They blame Abby and forbid her from seeing Gretchen again. When Abby chats with teacher Sister Kathleen (Ashley LeConte Campbell), the nun is appalled a student could damage the school’s reputation, warning Abby she will lose her scholarship if she continues telling stories. Abby is stunned when Gretchen seems to make a full recovery, making a head-spinning entrance into class without a care in the world. It differs from the book with the supernatural elements announced immediately in the movie. Soon Gretchen is isolating Abby from her friends (who she is poisoning and cruelly outing), jeopardizing her place in school, humiliating her in public, and other nasty stuff. FYI: The demonic storyline in the book was left open to interpretation by readers. You’re never sure if Gretchen was invaded by an otherworldly force, or attacked by a man in the woods.
Girls and Devils
When writing about possession and young girls, the most obvious frame of reference for film fans is William Friedkin’s 1973 The Exorcist. Based on the landmark novel by William Peter Blatty and one of the first horror movies that featured a prepubescent girl tied to a bed while priests try to drive the devil from her. It is still full of shocking imagery (and bad language) nearly 50 years later, the church tried to have it banned, and it was prohibited in the UK for a decade. The depiction of a girl/woman succumbing to the violent advances of a dark spirit is a bit of a clichéd trope today. But The Exorcist might not have enjoyed its controversial success if they’d cast a boy in the role of Regan. Regan is subjected to uncomfortable treatment and stomach-churning injuries. Controversial at the time of its release, the movie is still a difficult film to stomach because of the content.
Similarly, the ladies in Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead series ended up in the Deadite’s firing line first, with grotesque transformation followed by decapitation and dismemberment. Eduardo Sanchez’s Lovely Molly’s supernatural leanings remain a question mark for the duration of the movie, never revealing if her disturbing behavior stems from the sexual abuse she’d suffered or if a demonic entity is involved. Ti West’s Samantha (Joceline Donahue) in House of the Devil was afforded more autonomy. Samantha takes on a babysitting gig from a trio of Satanists. It does not involve possession; however, it does involve a demonic pregnancy.
All these movies view femininity in horror through a male lens. To a certain extent, women serve as fodder for a destructive, often visceral, demon takeover of their minds and bodies in possession films. There is an almost disturbing sexual element to this approach. The conservative aspect relates to the people who come under siege from dark forces: family-oriented, law-abiding, god-fearing, and ‘morally’ respectable. MBFE subverts the possession tale in a few ways that bring it into the 21st century with a modern sensibility. Both Hendrix and subsequently Thomas’s foray into this subgenre eschew the violence of past entries for a fun movie that is no less serious than its predecessors.
‘My Best Friend’s Exorcism’
MBFE remains faithful to Hendrix’s source material with both book and film layered and subversive in a way that isn’t directly obvious. It addresses MeToo in a plausible way; the adult’s reactions felt authentic. In a conservative town during the 80s, sex and drugs were no-go areas and not discussed openly, or at all. Abby is a young girl from a poor family, so speaking out puts her in a precarious position with the wealthy people, and people in positions of power she must orbit on a regular basis, perhaps due to her socioeconomic status, youth, and gender. The demon residing within Gretchen perceives these things as flaws it can exploit, underestimating the power of her bond with Gretchen, which is the demon’s ultimate undoing. Ok, so maybe the actual exorcism resorts to the familiar conventions of possession tales and the creature’s B-movie design detracts from the scares. But, MBFE deftly tackles a multitude of themes with a feminist slant, is non-preachy and relationships feel natural, and non-stagey. This is a demonic tale for the girls.