Several teenage girls hear voices as a group of well-meaning Jesus lovers take it upon themselves to “help” a friend whose mood swings appear to be more sinister than they would like.
What is it about teenagers, house parties and plastic red drinking cups? Is it a rite of passage? Is it just that red cups are the right size and shape to hold a beer? Is it just another film in-joke? They have made their appearance in everything from teen comedies to online College F*** Fest videos of late. Now, they rear their ugly red heads once again in High School Exorcism, a Lifetime cable movie out on DVD which was originally called High School Possession when it aired on Sunday, October 25, 2015 (why the name change, another bit of selling?) and is now being marketed with cover art similar to 1996’s The Craft to show off Pretty Young Thangs looking seductive and sinister. The film plays closer to an episode of Pretty Little Liars which, to be fair, has episodes more chilling than this flick. It’s set in the world of semi-posh teens and high school. This is no accident as Lauren Brady is played by Janel Parrish who plays Mona Vanderwaal on the aforementioned teen soap/thriller that is currently in its sixth season. This film no doubt is hoping to find the same audience.
Lauren is a high school student (hence, the title!) who also writes for the school paper and is pursuing journalism. She is also friends with Chloe (Jennifer Stone), a perpetually angry soccer player who bursts through every scene as though she wants to beat everyone up when she gets flashes of the night her father ditched her and her mother. Being that this is high school, you cannot really blame her when you consider just how outright mean some students can be. Chloe hears voices and responds to them with threats.
Lauren meets up with her friend Olivia (Shanley Caswell) at a youth group meeting at their local church and is introduced to Reverend Young (William McNamara) as research for an article she is writing on The Chosen, a group of high school kids who are committed to doing God’s work. After returning to the church to retrieve her cell phone which she left behind, she hears voices and witnesses what appears to be an exorcism being performed. She makes her way to a friend’s party the following night (cue the red cups) and staves off the charms of her guy friend Mase (Chris Brochu) who has the hots for her, only to find Chloe get into a fight with a fellow student and then end up in bed with Olivia’s boyfriend Brad (where is Janet?).
When Lauren sneaks into the church computer, she finds the name of the girls she saw at the exorcism. She tracks her down and confronts her and learns that she too heard voices. After Chloe has a meltdown at school, her mother (Ione Skye) takes her to a shrink who recommends professional and medical help.
All of this is too much for Lauren to process and she really doesn’t know what to make of it. Nietzschean aphorisms and references to the Bible do little to comfort her, but as a last resort, she sneaks a catatonic Chloe to a “session” with Olivia and several members of The Chosen in an effort to exorcise Chloe, all without Reverand Young’s knowledge as he has determined that Chloe needs medical help following a 50 question interview.
High School Exorcism does not break any new ground in the horror department. Teenage girls are the film’s obvious audience, and the typical Lifetime movie “cheezy” factor is present and intact, especially with the CGI effects. There is a twist at the end, and there is a visual indication of this that comes halfway through the film and if you are not paying attention, you will miss it. The film resorts to several annoying horror film clichés which include lights being turned off while Chloe showers, and people being “scared” by others (eliciting the “Boo!” factor), which is so old that calling it a cliché is a cliché itself; it’s long overdue for retirement. Everyone lives in a nice Los Angeles neighborhood, they all drive nice cars and no one seems to work. It must be nice! William McNamara, who began his acting career in 1987 and appeared briefly in Opera (1987), the last truly great movie that Dario Argento has directed, plays the Reverend Young. Kelly Hu appears as Denise, Lauren’s mother. Ms. Hu, who was 46 when she made this film (her daughter makes a joke about her looking good at age 40), must be drinking from the same fountain that the late Dick Clark drank from as she never seems to age. She easily looks 30 and could pass for Lauren’s older sister instead. Director Peter Sullivan, who works almost exclusively in television, directs the film with a mechanical hand, but does manage to shoot with some interesting camera angles.
It would have been nice to see this film up the ante and play it as full-blown satire wherein the mean students are kidnapped, given exorcisms, and returned to high school life completely well-adjusted. Something along the lines of 1989’s Heathers would have been welcomed.
As for extras, there is a stills gallery of shots from the movie, as well as a behind the scenes featurette which, with a running time of just over two minutes, is more of a promo than anything else. We get comments from several of the lead performers, including Mr. McNamara who says that the ending is so shocking that even seasoned horror fans won’t see it coming. No disrespect to Mr. McNamara, but I saw the ending halfway through the film. If you have seen The Devil’s Daughter (1973) and Ride With the Devil (1975) and recall high school vindictiveness…just sayin’!