2023 saw two of horror’s most iconic properties return to the big screen, both largely sold on now-elderly original stars reprising their most famous roles. And that is roughly where the similarities between Saw X and The Exorcist: Believer end. One is the tenth instalment in a franchise commonly dismissed as cheap torture porn, which dominated the 2000s and has had trouble regaining a foothold ever since. The other is a legacy sequel to the genre’s most respected classic. One is steeped in the convoluted mythology of the many films preceding it. The other entirely ignores all but the first. One is directed by the guy most famous for directing the sixth and seventh instalments in the same franchise. The other, by a former indie darling now best known for successfully resurrecting another faded horror property. One was embraced by critics, sitting comfortably in the eighties on Rotten Tomatoes. The other has been roundly dismissed and only just managed to crack the twenties.
And it’s in that last key difference that everything gets a little weird. Because somehow Saw X has become an unexpected critical hit while The Exorcist: Believer is facing the most sneering contempt any Exorcist film has been met with since the largely derided Exorcist II: The Heretic.
Clearly it wasn’t supposed to be like this. Blumhouse, Universal and Morgan Creek bet big on David Gordon Green’s return to The Exorcist. Really big – Universal put down $400 million for the rights. And while this is obviously excessive, it’s hard not to see what they thought the potential could be. After all, 2018’s Halloween effectively established Green as the J.J. Abrams of horror – at least, J.J. Abrams circa 2015. A safe pair of hands to revive any dormant franchise thrown at him. Following his two less celebrated Halloween sequels you’d be forgiven for thinking the gamble was maybe a bit misguided, but by then Green’s theoretical Exorcist sequel trilogy was underway, and with the coup that was Ellen Burstyn’s first return to the role of Chris McNeil in fifty years there was no real reason to think the film would not be at least generally well liked. Legacy sequels are easy, right? Follow the beats of the original with new characters and one or two returning veterans, and you have box office gold.
Meanwhile the announcement of Saw X was met mainly with eye rolls. In stark contrast to The Exorcist franchise, which has somewhat retained the prestige of the revolutionary original and has at least a couple of cult classics among its relatively conservative output, Saw never got much critical respect. The first film, despite being a Sundance hit, was a nasty if clever low budget thriller that was supposed to go straight to DVD. After becoming wildly profitable, sequels were pumped out yearly, with the contained, restrained charms of the first film giving way to labyrinthine, soap opera plotting that saw every successive film starting right where the previous one left off before regularly jumping back in time to fill in narrative gaps, while the largely implied gore of the first two films was replaced by explicit and extensive dismemberment. Saw ran out of steam with 2010’s gimmicky Saw 3D, then suffered two failed attempts at reboots: 2017’s convoluted and contrived Jigsaw, and 2021’s awful Spiral, which sidestepped established plots and characters in favour of a new and far less entertaining narrative centring a perpetually squinting Chris Rock.
It’s worth noting that there is something of a false equivalency when it comes to making any comparison of the two franchises. The expected standards are vastly different. But at the same time, to dismiss Saw X as a comparatively low bar to clear ignores the fact that not even hardcore Saw devotees liked the last three films in the franchise, let alone mainstream critics. That, clearly, has not been the case with Saw X, the success of which looks even more unlikely when you consider that its setting between the first two films necessitates an 80-something Tobin Bell playing a 50-something John Kramer and a 50-something Shawnee Smith playing a 20-something Amanda Young. Another similarity then; like Believer, Saw X is also a direct sequel to the first film, but it still embraces the minutiae and mythology of the entire series. It is a surprisingly savvy move, one which makes the film accessible to new audiences while ensuring there are plenty of nods to the old.
Ironically, Believer might have fared better if it had taken more cues from the previous franchise extensions it was so quick to dismiss. Say what you will about the Exorcist sequels, but each one of them tried very hard to do their own thing, building on William Friedkin’s original without emulating it. None achieved the same impact as the first, but The Exorcist III is increasingly recognised as a horror classic in its own right while Paul Schrader’s Dominion (one of two attempts at an Exorcist prequel based on the same script) tends towards the evaluation of being an interesting failure, a backhanded compliment Believer couldn’t even earn.
It doesn’t help that The Exorcist already had a pretty great legacy sequel doing just about everything Believer does only better, in the form of the tragically short lived 2016 TV series. Both versions even feature an older Chris McNeil estranged from Regan due to the ways in which she capitalised on their traumatic experiences (arguably neither version is true to the established character). But the TV series, despite having neither Burstyn nor Linda Blair involved, was far superior, coming up with compelling new frights and new characters who, given time to develop, could have become icons in their own rights.
Look, nobody would have expected David Gordon Green to adhere to the continuity of a cancelled television series, and to be fair it’s not like he erases The Heretic or The Exorcist III so much as just doesn’t reference them. But the involvement of Burstyn plus his track record of culling the whole Halloween canon after the original film comes with an inescapable subtext – that this was supposed to be the true sequel to Friedkin’s classic. But as too many Terminator films have learned to their detriment, if you’re going to overwrite or implicitly position yourself as superior to other properties in the same franchise, especially ones with passionate defenders, then you’d better be offering something pretty excellent in their stead.
Believer does nothing new. Having two possessed girls rather than one only serves to involve more extraneous characters in the story. And the attempt to make the act of exorcism more one of ‘community’ than of Catholic doctrine, allowing the involvement of multiple faiths, is not only weirdly misty-eyed for an Exorcist film, but comes off as a cheap attempt to pander to 2020s sensibilities rather than honour the intention of the original. After all, author of both the original novel and screenplay William Peter Blatty was a devoted Catholic and while it’s testament to the power of his work that it is still powerful and gripping to non-believers, producing a ‘true sequel’ in which the Catholic priest cries in the car while the other religious representatives bravely take on the demon does not help alleviate the vague sense that Green had no real understanding of the film he was making a sequel to.
Then there are the characters, none of whom compel or move like Damian Karras, a priest losing his faith and belief in his own decency, or Chris McNeil, a staunch non-believer forced to confront the impossible in order to save her daughter. In Believer, our protagonist essentially repeats Chris’ arc. The parents of the other possessed girl are rendered so one-dimensional and unlikable it’s hard to care at all about their plight, and none of the various exorcists come close to the compromised, complex heroism of Fathers Karras or Merrin.
Ellen Burstyn remains, at ninety, a transfixing screen presence, but whatever the trailers led us to believe she is barely in the film. She turns up for about five minutes before being sidelined in a way that aims for shocking but just feels distasteful, then is forced to deliver a truly awful monologue outlining the film’s half-baked themes, apparently written with the assumption that if Burstyn delivers it audiences will take it seriously. The actress, and the character, deserve better.
Contrast this with Saw X’s treatment of Tobin Bell. True, the return of the Jigsaw Killer is nowhere near as big of a deal as Burstyn’s – we last saw him in 2017’s Jigsaw and he had been prominent in all seven films preceding that – but Saw X does something quietly innovative and makes him the protagonist. This time around we’re in Kramer’s shoes from the start. A lengthy first act shows him grappling with his cancer, the hope and desperation of being offered a miracle cure, the devastated rage when he realises it was all a scam. By letting us follow Kramer, a neat trick is played on the audience – to paraphrase the largely execrable Saw IV, we’ve been invited to ‘see as he sees’. And so when he starts raining down twisted justice on the scammers, it’s hard not to cheer him on.
There have been some critiques of Saw X positioning Kramer as a hero, but that’s not quite what the movie is doing. Consider Amanda’s conflicted feelings about their treatment of drug addict Gabriela, clearly damaged and in over her head with the con, and how Kramer coldly dismisses them. Gabriela makes Amanda – and us – question just how far we’re willing to support Kramer here, as does the third act involvement of a completely innocent party in the game. Yes, it’s true that next to those who masterminded the fraud Kramer is the more sympathetic party, but Saw X regularly plays notes of discomfort that stop us from siding with him completely.
But maybe the most striking thing about Saw X is how, despite being a direct follow up to the first film, it refuses to fall into the trap of eschewing the less loved parts of the franchise. No, it doesn’t pay much tribute to Jigsaw or Spiral, but fan-favourite Kramer successor Mark Hoffman not only makes a post-credits scene appearance but is an off-camera player throughout the film, and the entire premise, of Kramer seeking an experimental therapy from a Norwegian doctor, has its origins in a Saw VI flashback where he attempts to get coverage for that exact treatment from his unscrupulous insurance company. In that film, when denied, Kramer retorts that he has money and can pay for it himself, inviting audience questions about why he didn’t. But by revealing the treatment to be a fraud, Saw X offers an explanation, not only tying itself closer to the history of the franchise at large, but doing so in a way that never once alienates casual viewers.
There has been an admirable reticence on the part of Saw’s producers to hit the reboot or retcon button. Even Jigsaw and Spiral, which positioned themselves as new starts for the series, still take place in the continuity of the first seven films. Saw, then, is the only horror franchise to reach ten films without ever once walking back or ignoring its less loved chapters. It’s one of the reasons why, despite the low critical ratings each new film might earn, fans remain passionate and invested.
As such it must be noted that Saw X’s unprecedented high critics score was almost certainly informed by a new generation of critics with fond memories of the older films. There’s no way this instalment is an improvement over the original, Saw II or Saw VI. It's not even an especially good movie, but it is a good Saw movie and a lot of this is due to the fact that, unlike Spiral, it’s not embarrassed to be a Saw movie.
Which should not suggest that dogmatic adherence to canon is inherently a virtue. In fact, The Exorcist franchise in all forms has always ignored everything but the original – Blatty’s III made no reference to John Boorman’s II, and while those movies could coexist without contradiction by merit of focusing on different characters, the plots of both Paul Schrader’s Dominion and Renny Harlin’s alternate version The Beginning directly undermined what Boorman did.
Nobody is claiming that Believer would have been better had Green embraced the entirety of The Exorcist’s messy cinematic history. But the bitter irony is that his true failing was not embracing their shared mandate; to use the story Blatty started as a foundation for something new.
It’s almost counterintuitive – that the less prestigious film franchise flourishes by leaning into its history while the ‘classier’ one arguably needs more radical, divergent takes to impress. But then, the first Exorcist was special precisely because nobody had ever seen anything like it before. That high standard leaves only one certainty – that following it by trying to do the same thing without a comparable level of originality is doomed to failure.
No, David Gordon Green should not have packed his film with callbacks to The Heretic. But he could have taken a lesson from that film’s willingness to swing for the fences. The interesting failure will always be preferable to the boring success, but Green’s film achieves neither.
So now that The Caretaker has been out for a couple of months, it’s probably a good time to discuss its biggest twists, reveals, and character journeys.
The best place to start would be Charlotte, a character who I was a little nervous about leading up to release. For the simple fact that I was once again writing a young woman on the run, but one seemingly without Maggie’s ruthless, decisive resourcefulness. Given that I know how much Maggie means to so many readers, it was hard not to fret about unflattering comparisons.
And look, there were certainly reviews that said Charlotte didn’t stack up to Maggie, as I knew there would be. Others didn’t mention the ‘M’ word but still expressed frustration at Charlotte's fearfulness and refusal to act.
But overall, Charlotte has been received really warmly. Quite a few readers have told me they actually like her more than Maggie for the simple fact that she’s so much more human. Maggie is more of a John Wick/Jack Reacher type, somewhat divorced from recognisable reality, but Charlotte, despite the heightened circumstances she ends up in, is a more relatable kind of anti-hero. Hearing this from so many is, of course, a big relief because my hope was always that readers would empathise with her despite her often terrible decision making.
Which of course brings me to the gradual reveal that Charlotte isn’t as far from Maggie as she might initially seem. She’s resourceful when she has to be, setting all kinds of traps to waylay her pursuers – traps that eventually save her life. And while her refusal to kill or harm others might look, at first, like the biggest point of difference, we of course come to learn that the very reason Charlotte avoids killing so desperately is because she did kill someone, for reasons she thought were right at the time but came to understand were very wrong. And where Maggie, who learned from a very early age how brutal and uncompromising the world can be, will generally shoot first, ask questions later, feel guilt never – Charlotte isn’t cut from that same cloth. Her act of murder has left her permanently scarred, unable to move on from the act that split her entire life and understanding of herself in half.
To me the question at the heart of The Caretaker is not whether Charlotte can be redeemed, or whether she deserves her freedom. I don’t think that question means much in real life, where people do the most terrible things for the most empty reasons and never seriously consider redemption or retribution. The question The Caretaker asks is twofold – can she learn from it, and can she live with it?
Charlotte’s refusal to directly harm anyone, even in the most seemingly impossible circumstances, is exactly what frees her at the end. She won’t kill Anders even as John makes it clear that doing so is the only thing that will make him spare her life. She refuses even though Anders, a cold blooded hitman, would happily have turned her over to her hunters. And once she has led John into the trap that seemingly (we’ll get to that) kills him, she saves the injured Anders – and in return gets a promise that he will tell those trying to find her that she is dead. The fact that saving Anders even when she shouldn’t have is what saves her, is what Charlotte needs in order to accept that she is not a ghost waiting to be finally vanquished, but a human being with an ugly past who has grown and changed and become more capable because of it.
I get asked a lot if Charlotte will be back. The answer is probably yes, but not in any kind of sequel. Her backstory coincides with another book I hope to write one day, and Charlotte would be a major character in that book – although her appearances would all be set before the present day timeline in The Caretaker. In terms of where she goes from here? I have some vague ideas, but nothing I think constitutes another book, at least not right now. I’m quite happy to let her escape to a peaceful future.
The other major characters are a very different story. First, John, the smiling, strangely avuncular serial killer who believes he’s helping Charlotte become ‘actualised’. It’s now that I can fully and officially confirm that John is, of course, none other than The Driver from my Audible Original The Hitchhiker, a character I enjoyed writing so much that I gave him a starring role in this novel. John will be back early next year in The Lodger, the direct sequel to The Hitchhiker – although in reality The Caretaker is essentially a de-facto middle chapter to the trilogy.
So yes, John survives his final fall in The Caretaker, just as he survived being stabbed at the end of The Hitchhiker. I promise I won’t keep employing these fake out deaths for him, but I do kind of like the idea that he’s maybe mildly supernatural, that he somehow always lucks out in surviving the seemingly unsurvivable. That’s not canon, by the way, I just enjoy the notion that John – or Paul, or The Driver or, as he’ll be called in The Lodger, George – is somehow other.
The third main character of the novel is probably my favourite. Anders, the droll Swedish hitman, was a character who originally came about as a suggestion from my publisher that Charlotte needed someone to talk to throughout the book. The original pitch was a partner or a child, but that wasn’t right – Charlotte had to be alone and isolated without allies. So to that, I figured the ideal compromise was a hired gun who she managed to overpower and then, due to her unwillingness to kill, was forced to keep captive in the basement.
I liked writing Anders a lot. I found his dry, deadpan, disinterested personality a fun contrast with the desperate Charlotte and happy-go-lucky John. I also enjoyed his growing curiosity towards Charlotte, the way he gradually realises the many ways he has underestimated her.
This is why I didn’t kill him off, as I’d originally planned to. The more I wrote the more I realised that there was a lot of mileage left in this guy, that down the line he could appear in other stories, maybe even get his own eventually.
So Anders too will be back – going head to head with Jack Carlin and Maggie in High Rise, my next adult thriller for HarperCollins, which I’m currently outlining. High Rise will be set post The Caretaker and The Lodger (which will also feature Maggie and Jack), but likely won’t have any direct references to either of them. Still, not to pre-empt too much, you can bet that Anders’ experiences in Caretaker, physically and emotionally, will have seen him somewhat changed.
I think. Look, it’s always tricky to make promises about books you haven’t written yet. Stories change so much in the telling, and things you believed to be certainties can slip away almost the second you start writing. That happened as recently as The Lodger, which at almost every turn revealed itself to be not the novel I’d planned – to the point where I can barely even remember the meticulous plot I spent weeks cobbling together. But for now, I feel pretty sure that Anders will have a major part to play in High-Rise.
I guess the other thing to talk about here is pace. A LOT of reviews have mentioned how much slower this is compared to The Hunted or The Inheritance – the majority cite this as a positive or at least a shift that works, others have complained about it. Which is par for the course; I’d never want or expect to please everyone but pleasing most, as The Caretaker looks to have done, is certainly not something I’m ever going to complain about.
I don’t think a slowed down pace is either better or worse than the other books by default. It’s a different story with a different character and that means a different approach. Maggie’s books are fast, bruising and punishing because, well, she is all those things. Charlotte didn’t suit a story told in that style. So instead of relying on action or shock twists, here my main tools were creeping tension and the gradual reveals of simmering mysteries that hopefully upend and complicate your allegiances at various turns. Even if The Caretaker had bombed catastrophically, I still would have been glad I took these risks.
One chapter in the book, as I spoke about a lot pre-release, was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever written in my life. Of course, that’s the chapter where we learn, through the fractured memories and hallucinations of Charlotte losing consciousness as she flees in the snow, that the person she murdered was her godfather 'Uncle Mac', after she learned he was a major crime lord gunning for her partner Dominic.
I knew early on this chapter would be the centrepiece of the book. I also knew that it couldn’t be just another flashback, because this is the event that defines who Charlotte is now, the moment she went from bystander to perpetrator, the moment she stepped fully into a world she’d previously benefitted from but always managed to keep blind to the realities of. The moment that shattered her, that turned her alcoholic and erratic and illogical until she made the choice to run away and separate herself from it all.
So I tried something I never had before. Four timelines, flowing into each other, all written in present tense unlike the rest of the book. With the same characters appearing in multiple timelines, many beats could be taking place in any of them. I wanted it to be blurry and discombobulating and still somehow clear at every turn what it meant and what was happening. It was the only way I could think of to convey what Charlotte went through and how entirely it transformed her. I wrote it in two days. I couldn’t write anything else for a long time afterwards. I wasn’t sure if it was the best or the worst thing I’ve ever written.
Of course, you can’t really define that for yourself, just like you can’t define for yourself what’s good or bad about any of your writing. All you can ever speak to with any authority is what you like about what you do, not its objective quality – if there even is such a thing.
So what I will say about that chapter is not that it’s the best thing I’ve ever written, but that it’s my proudest moment as a writer. I didn’t think I could write like that until I did. But then, I didn’t think I could write a book like Caretaker until I did, and once it was done and on its way into the world, I still wasn’t sure any of it had landed.
So to everyone who read it, who wrote me emails or messages or approached me at events, who reviewed it or posted about it – thank you for letting me be proud of one of the biggest risks I've ever taken.
Writing words about writing words.