In a recent interview, The New Mutants director Josh Boone described his upcoming addition to Fox’s superhero film franchise as being “a full-fledged horror movie set within the X-Men universe,” one where “There are no costumes. There are no supervillains. We’re trying to do something very, very different.”
While at first this might seem slightly at odds with the very premise of the New Mutants, seeing as it is an X-Men off-shoot, featuring a younger team of superheroes just as eager to fight super-powered villains and anti-mutant bigotry as their elders, the deeper you look, the more sense it makes.
While The New Mutants looked innocent and fresh-faced in their first appearance in 1982’s eponymously titled debut graphic novel, groups of teens and young people getting into trouble in the big, bad world away from adult supervision is a staple of the horror genre. It can be seen everywhere, from the exploits of the kids at Camp Crystal Lake in the Friday the 13th films all the way through to Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s post-modern meta-horror flick Cabin in the Woods and beyond.
Yet within the X-Men mythos, the teenage years have an added significance; as many mutants’ powers lay dormant until triggered by the onset of puberty, in the X-verse, superpowers are just one more change young mutants face growing up. Once they manifest, these abilities can take all manner of forms, up to and including complete bodily transformation. Outside of the introduction of Rogue in the first X-Men movie and Cyclops’ eye beam manifestation in X-Men: Apocalypse, this aspect has been glossed over in most X-Men movies to date, but it is something that would lend itself well to all manner of body horror.
According to recent reports, the film includes among its cast Maisie Williams and Anya Taylor-Joy playing Rahne Sinclair, a red-haired Scott whose powers are effectively being werewolf and Illyana Rasputin, a teen teleporter who also happens to be a sword-wielding demon sorceress thanks to a very dark and convoluted backstory involving her childhood abduction and seduction by evil sorcerer named Belasco. Yes, this is a comic that beat the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer to the punch by over a decade in the werewolves and magic/melee weapon wielding female protagonists department.
While we don’t yet know which other characters from the team will make it into the movie, we do know that the film will apparently revolve around a principle cast of five young mutants, making it reasonable to expect the remaining characters will come from the team’s established roster.
If the persistent rumors that the movie will be drawing on the comic’s “Demon Bear Saga” storyline are accurate, then at least one of the three as-yet uncast mutants will likely be Danielle Moonstar, a Native American of Cheyenne heritage whose special ability allows her to manifest a person’s greatest desire… or greatest fear.
From that description alone, this power would seem the perfect plot device for a horror movie. But within the narrative of the comics continuity in New Mutants #18-20, with a coda of sorts in the following issue that has been included various trade paperback collections of the tale, Dani is haunted by an entity she refers to as the demon bear, a creature she is convinced is responsible for her parents’ apparent deaths.
It’s a weird rights of passage tale that starts with Dani confronting and becoming critically injured by the beast, and ends with her fellow New Mutants coming together to fight off the beast in battle that rages across real world, to the mental plane, and back again as Dani undergoes emergency surgery to save her life. The nebulous reality of this bear, which could be a self-destructive manifestation of Dani’s powers, or something more, would make it a potent antagonist in a horror movie setting, where surreal supernatural phenomenon are a regular occurrence.
The last two spots in the cast will probably include long-standing team members Sam Guthrie’s invulnerable flying Cannonball (Stranger Things star Charlie Heaton is rumored to be in the process of being cast in this role right now), Roberto DaCosta’s super strong solar-powered Sunspot, with Amara Aquila’s Magma probably a little less likely to make the cut. The special effects budget implications of her liquid lava form and her limited involvement in the source text would seem to to make her character eminently dispensable.
Another character that will apparently be missing from the film’s set up Professor X himself. It’s been reported that there is no role for James McAvoy in the film, and seemingly no place for his school for Gifted Youngsters either. It’s a bold move, but one you can see working really well should the movie embrace its teenager in a horror setting approach whole-heartedly.
Xavier and his school are a great big narrative security blankets in the X-films. Even if, as in Deadpool, they remain largely off-screen, they still provide the sense that however bad things get for the characters on-screen, there is the hope that the X-Men could turn up en masse to beat up all the baddies and pound every problem into submission. Take away the school, and all bets are off. Our protagonists no longer have back up, no highly-trained mutant militia waiting in the wings to save everyone at the last minute.
What’s more, without the the school to educate the young mutants that what they are is entirely normal and nothing to be ashamed of, they would be even more vulnerable and reluctant to trust establishment authority figures such as the police or medical services. Isolation like this is, of course, another key horror movie trope.
The film’s director has offered the following precis of his film’s plot: “Held in a secret facility against their will, five new mutants have to battle the dangers of their powers, as well as the sins of their past. They aren’t out to save the world — they’re just trying to save themselves.”
A secret facility where mutants are held against their will already sounds like a plot from a horror film, and within the narrative such an environment would certainly work in keeping our young heroes away from society at large and their families in particular as well as from smartphones and near-constant contact with an extended circle of friends through social media that is a feature of life for modern teenagers.
In the comics source text, the surreal side of the story is handled brilliantly by artist Bill Sienkiewicz, who made his name on the title. Sienkiewicz’s art style, which veers from realism to expressionism sometimes from panel to panel, is instrumental in warping the readers’ sense of reality, and it will be interesting to see how Boone’s film version manages to capture the artist’s evocative yet playful visuals and design style. I for one can’t wait to see the Nightmare on Elm Street-like scene where the demon bear claws an opening from the badlands of the mental plane into the cold, sterile reality of the operating theatre in which Dani is being patched up by a team of surgeons, translated to the big screen.
Among the horror references embedded in the source text, another strong influence is the work of John Carpenter. Not only does the possible inclusion of the shape-changing techno-organic alien mutant Warlock who first appears in cameo during the Demon Bear storyline before making his first full appearance in New Mutants #21, have strong parallels to The Thing in Carpenters horror-sci-fi remake, but the chapter in which Dani’s is first taken to the hospital, which is then stalked by the beast is entitled “Siege,” drawing least some comparison to Assault on Precinct 13. Of course there is a good chance that Boone’s film will also draw heavily from both of these films and may even go so far as to combine the the demon bear with the alien mutant in some way. This could concievably also add an explanation to the physical aspect to the bear’s presence.
All of which brings us to perhaps the most pernicious problem of horror films; their tendency, if commercially successful, towards watered-down franchises. Part of the success of both Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and Fox’s wider X-universe has been their ability to blend genres, thus creating a fresh approach to material that otherwise would quickly become stale and tired. Ant-Man is both a superhero flick and a heist movie, while Deadpool‘s breakout success was due to it being a superhero comedy in which neither the action nor the humor was a subservient element.
What Boone appears to be attempting with New Mutants is a horror story based in a world where super powers are the reality. But with that approach comes the inherent risk that his film might be more successful than he bargained for. Horror film franchises tend to focus on the monsters more than the heroes, and one of Boone’s most significant challenges will be to make audiences and studio executives alike want to see New Mutants 2, rather than a sequel featuring an army of Demon Bears.
Still, the potential in Boone’s proposed approach to expanding Fox’s X-verse makes it more than worth taking that risk.
Written and directed by Josh Boone, New Mutants is due to enter production in July and is scheduled to hit theaters on April 13, 2018.