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.
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