The New Mutants and Its Nightmare on Elm Street Influences
We examine the tonal strangeness of Josh Boone’s The New Mutants, and how A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors might be a bigger influence than any comic book.
This article contains mild The New Mutants spoilers.
The New Mutants is an odd duck. The writing was on the wall back in 2017 when 20th Century Fox first pushed the film off its original 2018 release window. Apparently the delay was the result of the studio wanting to make it more of a horror movie via reshoots… reshoots that then never happened.
Even so, those horror elements are still on bonkers display in Josh Boone’s final cut of the film, now available on Blu-ray and VOD. Even without knowing Boone was vocal that the Nightmare on Elm Street movies were cornerstone influences, it’s clear his mutant mayhem wants to live on the same block.
To be sure, these aspects are more muted than they should be, which is the result of the film’s biggest problem: tonal inconsistency. New Mutants veers wildly between young adult drama, youthful hijinks, and a nigh ‘80s slasher sensibility where very few characters actually get slashed. If reshoots had actually upped the horror quotient, this could fit nicely as a continuation of the Elm Street Kids’ travails. But even in its bizarre current form, there is something there to appreciate, particularly for fans of Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors.
Nearly 40 years after Robert Englund first growled his way through a Freddy Krueger movie, many fans still think of the first Wes Craven-directed A Nightmare on Elm Street when they look back on that series. But for horror fans of a certain age, 1987’s Dream Warriors was the only Nightmare on Elm Street movie that mattered. It’s the one where Heather Langenkamp’s Nancy Thompson returned, and a gang of street-wise ‘80s teen movie archetypes found themselves locked in a mental hospital with Freddy picking them off one pun at a time. And as these victims found ways to fight back in their nightmares, they became the “Dream Warriors,” just as their film turned into a superhero movie with a body count.
The high concept of a monster fighting the Breakfast Club inside of Nurse Ratched’s hospital is still incredibly appealing today. And it’s emulated from top to bottom in The New Mutants. Not that Boone and his stars have exactly been coy about this fact; Dream Warriors has been name dropped by the filmmakers ever since the first trailer introduced us to the movie’s versions of Rhane Sinclair (Maisie Williams), Illyana Rasputin (Anya Taylor-Joy), Sam Guthrie (Charlie Heaton), Roberto da Costa (Henry Zaga), and Danielle Moonstar (Blu Hunt).
Even way back in 2017, Boone told Collider that Dream Warriors was one of New Mutants’ big influences. “I do love Dream Warriors,” Boone said at the time. “I loved the first [movie] as well, but this is very much a rubber reality horror movie for the first about 75% of the movie and then it becomes something else.”
And unlike many X-Men adjacent films, the characters from early New Mutants comics are more or less recognizable in their live-action forms here. Nevertheless, how they’re introduced is pure Dream Warriors.
After a dubious opening sequence in which Hunt’s Dani Moonstar survives a “tornado,” the young girl is committed to an isolated sanitarium along with other teenage mutants. Their chaperone Dr. Reyes (Alice Braga) swears they’re being groomed by an unseen benefactor who we’re led to believe is Charles Xavier… but her evasiveness about the details suggests something more sinister.
All the while, each of the kids is plagued by nightmares, both when they’re asleep and awake. And the waking terrors are of their worst fears come to life. So, yes, this is basically a Freddy movie without Freddy. That in itself could be viewed as damning, both to horror fanatics who want more thrills and superhero fans who like their popcorn buttered the same way every time, but even with its (many) foibles, there is charm in New Mutants’ rough edges. Here is a movie decidedly not a product of the all-too-familiar blockbuster assembly line.
For instance, Boone takes his Dream Warriors aesthetic and runs with it via multiple visual references and plotting echoes, all of which feel unnatural for its superpowered fantasy. In one early scene, a character briefly entertains suicide while standing atop a menacing Gothic tower, not unlike how Freddy forced Phillip (Bradley Gregg) to throw himself from one in Dream Warriors, earning the label of “suicide” by other characters; in a more overt fashion, New Mutants’ Roberto sits in a wheelchair in another scene, just like the one Will (Ira Heiden) used in Dream Warriors; and the character is later seduced into a watery illusion by a dream girl who is not what she seems, a la Joey’s haphazard “wet dream,” as Freddy coins it, in the direct Dream Warriors sequel, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988).
All of these knowing nudges from Boone and his co-screenwriter Knate Lee are there for Freddy’s Children to catch. Yet they can also both improve and hinder New Mutants. In the plus column, they feel unusual and original for a movie about comic book characters; on the other side of the ledger, few of these “scares” actually go far enough to be frightening. Thus the movie feels strangely unfinished, even after spending years on a shelf. In fact, there are several scene transitions where you know something is missing from pickups that were never filmed.
And yet, that low-fi messy quality may add to its rough hewn, uneven charm for a certain set. Like all of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, this isn’t high art. But the fact it goes for these horror moments with complete sincerity is kind of refreshing. Like Dream Warriors, New Mutants and its cast take their plight seriously, probably too much so. But after a decade of most superhero movies relying on a smug self-deprecation—a persistent invisible smirk at the camera which promises we know it’s nonsense—New Mutants’ emotional earnestness will appeal to a smaller cult audience.
In this vein, the strongest aspect of the film is likely any scene involving Williams’ Rahne and Hunt’s Dani. The former has the benefit of being played by the lone actor to nail her thick accent, as well as the rich horror trope of being a hard-believing Catholic. Like many a teenager from a religious home, Rahne fears Hell, which Bone and Lee’s screenplay embrace in the thematic sense with Rahne also being a glorified werewolf who fears her “evil” mutation.
In the more literal sense, Rahne also struggles with her attraction to Dani. It’s a romance that doesn’t feel tacked on by a studio note or an afterthought for social media; like Boone’s earlier work, it’s presented as a sincere puppy love story. But even that has echoes in the Nightmare on Elm Street saga, with the second film, Freddy’s Revenge (1985) attempting to tell a subtextual gay love story–one full of shame and literal self-mutilation where the main character transforms into Freddy when he’s attracted to his buddy.
New Mutants does this element better by removing the “sub” in “subtext,” and the shame. Rather it commits to a sweet romance just as earnestly as it commits to a sequence where Rahne’s dead priest returns to haunt her with a demonic voice that sounds a lot like Freddy’s warble. Yet this, too, mirrors a locker room attack in Freddy’s Revenge.
Despite the tonal dissonance between these two elements both aspects embrace the LGBTQ+ undertones in X-Men comics better than most actual X-Men comics, and in their own way are reminiscent of how goofy ‘80s slasher movies could become comforting outlets for marginalized groups.
That New Mutants tackles these delicate aspects as brazenly (or some might say as tastelessly) as those ‘80s slashers is kind of wild. It also ensures that New Mutants will eventually find an audience. Perhaps not the audience who superhero movies are so methodically engineered for in the 21st century, nor in the mainstream commercial audience Fox almost quaintly thought this approach would appeal to. It certainly isn’t critics with the movie’s ungainly, batshit tendencies.
But as with Dream Warriors before it, here’s a film in which young people use superpowers to fight the man and topple authority while seeing each other in a way they, nor any superhero movie, has before. It gives this bloody mess teeth… and claws.