Film Review: “My Best Friend’s Exorcism” — Wasted Bandwidth
By Michael Marano
There’s no real engagement with the ’80s, so this attempt at horror/comedy is politically and emotionally inert, profoundly unfunny and pathetically un-scary.
My Best Friend’s Exorcism, directed by Damon Thomas. Streaming on Amazon Prime.
There’s a fancy French term called L’esprit de l’escalier (“The Wit of the Staircase”). It describes the feeling that comes over you when the perfect comeback you should have fired off in an argument arrives — as you walk away from it. So many of the horror films made today feel like L’esprit de l’escalier — the Dorothy Parker-level rejoinders we should have delivered as we argued with the ’80s. It is a manifestation of our need to supply a retroactive last word to the toxic Reagan era, when “Sit, Ubu, sit! Good dog!” was the perfect end point punctuation to a night of sitcom joy and laughter.
Some great horror has engaged with the ’80s —Stranger Things and The Black Phone (Arts Fuse review) come to mind. But, for God’s sake, what’s left to say about Michael Myers? Who needs a new Halloween trilogy? Scream was a mid-’90s comment on ’80s horror that felt definitive at the time, but it’s now being dragged out as a franchise to the point of irrelevance — this commentary on ’80s horror has lasted a quarter century. Really, what remains to be said about ’80s horror? Why are we still engaging with it? Have the anxieties of the ’80s come back? Are they lingering, to the point Qanon idiocy could germinate from the Satanic Panic of the ’80s?
The irony, of course, is that ’80s horror had brilliant dialogues with its past. John Carpenter’s The Thing, David Cronenberg’s The Fly, and Tobe Hooper’s Invaders from Mars transposed McCarthy-inspired paranoia onto “The Evil Empire” and AIDS, and Fred Dekker’s The Monster Squad was a romp in which, as Dekker put it, “the Little Rascals meet the Classic Universal Monsters.”
You have to keep all this in mind to appreciate the utter wretchedness of the new Amazon horror/comedy My Best Friend’s Exorcism, based on the best-selling novel by Grady Hendrix. The film’s “last word” on the ’80s is witless and bereft of any meaningful connection to its ostensible historical period. Astounding, given that the story is set in the fall of 1988, when a major network handed Geraldo Rivera two hours of primetime to air Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground. The New York Times called that “pornography masquerading as journalism.” My Best Friend’s Exorcism carries on its own superficial masquerade with the past.
Because there’s no real engagement with the ’80s, the movie is politically, emotionally, and narratively inert. BFFs Abby (Elsie Fisher) and Gretchen (Amiah Miller) are stuck in an oppressively conservative Christian and suburban existence. Their angst is made exponentially worse after Gretchen is possessed by a demon after a night of dropping acid and messing around with a Ouija board. But the movie invests nothing in this tired set-up. We are assured Abby and Gretchen are best friends, but not convinced of it. Compare that to ’80s throwback Freaks and Geeks, in which relationships were defined beautifully via a few deft strokes. The oppression of suburbia in the ’80s is nonexistent in My Best Friend’s Exorcism. Compare that to Donnie Darko, in which we felt upper middle class suffocation within the first two minutes. Building friendship and delineating repression should buttress a successful narrative of this type: besties confronting the supernatural. Otherwise, why should we care? Let the devil have his way.
Instead, My Best Friend’s Exorcism relies on a lazy ’80s cinematic shorthand (MTV hits on the soundtrack, music video editing, Jem and the Holograms-style costume choices). There’s no dialogue, critical or otherwise, with the ’80s — nothing substantial about anything meaningful buttresses the narrative. The movie has as much entertainment value as a trunk full of Michael Milken junk bonds. There is no L’esprit de l’escalier with the ’80s (as Ti West beautifully executed in his House of the Devil, for example). This film tosses the ’80s at the wall, like a fistful of cold, Olive Garden alfredo.
And, without any connection with the real world (of the past), the film is profoundly unfunny and pathetically un-scary. You want real ’80s scares and laughs that celebrate the bonds of friendship? 1985’s Punky Brewster Halloween special, The Perils of Punky, was a bajillion times more effective than this waste of bandwidth.
Maybe, at some point, it is time to put our need for that last witty retort with ’80s horror and anxiety to rest. As you can tell, I myself can’t let it go. It’s why I pitched and wrote this review of such a dreadfully dread-less film.
Writer and critic Michael Marano is fairly sure that if you unspooled all the tape from all the VHS cassettes on which he watched horror movies in the ’80s, it would circle the globe at least once. He Tweets at https://twitter.com/MikeMarano.