SPOILER ALERT: This review may contain details you might want to avoid if you want see Fresh with completely fresh eyes.
Take a bite out of Sweeney Todd, a bit of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, throw in a little torture porn, some 50 Shades of Grey, and top it all off with some delicious Hannibal Lecter and you have a recipe for a look at the horrors (literally) of dating, circa right about now. These are the ingredients screenwriter Lauryn Kahn and director Mimi Cave seem to be craving in Fresh, which debuted Thursday on the first night of the Sundance Film Festival as part of its Midnight movies lineup. Searchlight picked up the film through Legendary Pictures and will premiere it on Hulu on March 4. It could have a promising run in theaters as well since horror is one of the few genres still gaining traction during the pandemic, but this gruesome side dish of terror may be just an acquired taste, turning off as many as it turns on.
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Definitely written slyly with a female POV, it isn’t really until the last act that the revenge moments start taking hold, a formula we have seen recently in other female-fronted suspense thrillers like last year’s Best Original Screenplay winner Promising Young Woman and 2020’s The Invisible Man with Elisabeth Moss taking the reins. It actually starts out like any other romantic comedy as we watch Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones of Normal People) suffering through a first date with a real drip and obnoxious guy. When she tells him after their dinner that it isn’t going to work out he calls her a bitch, says she is not his type, and storms off. Noa just isn’t lucky in love, and not fond of the dating games as she tells her best friend Mollie (a lively Jojo T. Gibbs).
Lo and behold, an ordinary trip to the supermarket though is where she meets cute with a guy named Steve (Sebastian Stan) who comes off as a real charmer when they bond over grapes. He asks for her number and in no time they have landed in the sack — clearly a budding romance is blooming. When he suggests they get away for the weekend to a spot he keeps as a surprise she is so smitten she says yes. Soon they arrive at his lavishly designed private getaway where on the first night he keeps spiking the wine for her. As she descends into a fog and finally passes out, the opening credits roll about 25 minutes into the movie. The following hour and half are a completely different flick altogether.
So without going into gross detail (a warning appears at the beginning that the film contains gore and violence), it turns out good ‘ol Steve just ain’t what she thought, and in fact has an unusual appetite for women. In fact as we will learn he found himself so consumed by women at an early age that he just couldn’t help consuming them. Yes, Noa said yes-a when she should have said, uh, no-a. She has wandered into this guy’s house of horrors and discovers she is not his only potential victim. She should have listened to BFF Mollie’s red-light warning upon learning he had no Instagram account. Failing to get texts from Noa in fact, Mollie goes on the hunt, and that is when things get serious.
Cave directs skillfully, all with a wry eye and sense of play, and the sexual politics are nicely on display with some sharp observations in the war between men and women, but even Lecter might be repulsed at what goes on here, not just for Steve’s kinky pleasure, but as a business he runs where the customers will clearly set the image of men back a few hundred years. But isn’t that kind of the point? After being slashed and trashed in genre movies almost since Hollywood began, it is actually nice of late to see the tables turned for women when they get a chance to give as good as they get in this kind of thing. Fresh may not exactly live up to its title as it caves (sorry Mimi) to familiar tropes of the horror genre in its second half, but in playing with the whole theme of consumption in all its meanings Kahn’s outrageous script has points to make.
Edgar-Jones plays it for all its worth, and Stan clearly has taken courses at the Norman Bates School for Psychos. Charlotte Le Bon has a few good moments as a victim who found a way to survive, and Dayo Okeniyi is pretty funny as Mollie’s bartender buddy who wants no part of this sh*t. Producers are Adam McKay and Kevin Messick.
Even though the actual on-screen carnage and carving is kept to a minimum so we just see the end results of Steve’s handiwork, I would strongly caution those with weak stomachs to beware.
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