As if adolescence weren't already a horror movie. Whether it's changing bodies, unpredictable mood swings, or an unknown future, youth is riddled with enough metaphorical demons to keep a teen up at night. But what happens when those demons become literal?
My Best Friend's Exorcism answers that question, with a coming-of-age story that is like The Exorcist by way of Heathers. Adapted from the novel of the same name by author Grady Hendrix, the story follows BFFs Abby (Elsie Fisher) and Gretchen (Amiah Miller) as they live their best teen lives in the late '80s — chatting on the landline, singing along to Tiffany, pining for Boy George. But when the girls visit an old abandoned house in the woods, Gretchen comes back different: distant, cruel, and it turns out, possessed by a demon.
Gretchen transforms into the ultimate mean girl, using her friends' insecurities against them to cause some serious emotional damage. (And a bit of demonic carnage too.) It's up to Abby, with help from a religious fitness guru named Christian Lemon (Christopher Lowell), to save Gretchen before it's too late for her soul — and their friendship.
"I always describe the film as a film about friendship wrapped up in a demonic possession," director Damon Thomas tells A.frame. "Even though we're dealing with demonic possession — something that's very not of this world — to me, that was the most important part of the story. That it's about friendship that triumphs in the end."
Fisher, who broke out with a star-making turn in 2018's Eighth Grade, another film exploring the terror of coming of age albeit in a much less supernatural fashion, says, "Culture tends to pit women against each other often, even in a lot of movies about female friendship. So, I think anything that sort of doesn't have that is good and needed. I love that our film, it doesn't feel, like, cliché either. When we get to that point and [friendship] does save the day, it feels very cathartic, and just very nice."
Born in 2003, Fisher's '80s research included watching the classics like Heathers and William Friedkin's Oscar-winning The Exorcist. But, she adds, "At the time, I wanted to stay away from watching too many projects, because the film itself is already an adaptation of a book, so I felt like I could trust in the book."
Thomas, meanwhile, wanted to capture the love he had for "cinematic events" of that decade, movies like E.T., Aliens, and The Shining, noting that audiences today don't always get to have those same shared cultural experiences. "Whereas back then," the U.K. director says, "I remember when Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' video was premiered on TV. It was put on at five to midnight, and it was the big event. I mean, everybody watched it and discussed it the next day!"
However, the '80s setting did require some context from the director for his younger cast members. "It's very hard to put yourself in the shoes of others when you are a modern person from now," he explains. "It's saying, 'Imagine a life without your mobile phone.' They can't really! But that's what the '80s were really like — that you have a friend, you phone them at their house, and then you say, 'I'll meet you here.' And if they weren't at that place, you'd have to find a phone box and call their house and go, 'When did they leave? Where are they?'"
Thomas also worried that the Ouija board may have lost some of its horror potential in the decades since its '80s heyday. "I had to tell them about were that Ouija boards were quite scary!" he exclaims. "They were fun, but they used to really make people feel a bit of a shiver or quiver with anticipation."
My Best Friend's Exorcism arrives in a year that has been especially great for horror fans. As moviegoers returned to theaters en mass, it was horror flicks like Barbarian, Nope, and X that drew in audience, while streamers offered up scares at home in the forthcoming releases of Hellraiser and Halloween Ends.
"I think the world is pretty scary right now. There's a lot of crazy stuff going on," Fisher says of genre's appeal, now more than ever. (She herself starred in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre "requel," released on Netflix earlier this year.) "And horror is such an interesting genre because it constantly has to reinvent. When it feels like maybe other genres aren't able to give a fulfilling movie watching experience, we can always turn to horror to save the day."
As for Thomas, who directed episodes of horror series like Penny Dreadful and Dracula before helming My Best Friend's Exorcism, horror offers a chance to explore parts of the human condition that are both frightening, yet somehow comforting. "When you have a very heightened world, it allows you to do things that maybe you can't just do in a domestic drama," he says.
"There's also an escapism to it," Thomas explains. "I think that we've always been attracted to things that are dark. It's something that we're obviously drawn to as humans, and I think it's also a diversion from all the things that are happening in reality. Also, we know what we're going to get, don't we? With My Best Friend's Exorcism, you know what you're going to get, and we like a scary story!"