Film, Reviews

FRESH is a ghoulish gourmet of dating horror

Online dating has been ripe for the horror treatment for a good few years now and while Fresh takes an, if you will, fresh approach to such a world, it builds on pictures that came before.

Go as far back as 1999 and you have Takashi Miike’s Audition, which surely put a legion of would-be romantics off seeking solace in dating websites ever again. 2017 was a banner year for this, giving us It Follows, where Maika Monroe is punished for sexual freedom by a terrifying force, and also Get Out where Daniel Kaluyya’s online-met girlfriend turns out to be part of a deeply white supremacist American family. To date online in the world of cinema, outside of the rom com, is to abandon hope all ye who enter.

Fresh, therefore, becomes part of a lexicon of films that square the focus on the peril young women face from not just online dating but toxic misogyny and the underlying fear that men are dangerous. As a fellow captive tells Daisy Edgar-Jones’ unlucky in love Noa, “it’s not our fault… it is always theirs…”. Mimi Cave’s directorial debut nonetheless takes a scalpel to what could have been a rather dour and conventional, exploitative tale and peppers it with strangely romantic & twisted black comic gusto.

Even if it doesn’t turn you off online dating forever, it might make you think twice about swiping right next time.

If you never saw the trailer for Fresh then good, because you would likely have ended up as drawn in across the first half hour as Cave intends, as her film tees up a modern, romantic indie drama and then violently swerves into darker territory.

It might have been a dupe we would have bought into given the casting of Edgar-Jones, still best known for her angst-ridden role as Marianne in the steamy, thirst-filled adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People, who got sex-starved, locked down Westerners through the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. Neatly affecting an American brogue here, she nonetheless feels natural casting as Noa, seeking love in the dating wilderness and facing a field of affected, privileged men who tell her how to dress or just send her unsolicited dick picks. Such is the life of the modern woman negotiating Tinder.

Sebastian Stan gives the game away that we’re not entirely in romantic territory given he is currently straddling the possibilities of an interesting career. On the one hand, he is the rather bland Bucky Barnes, formerly the Winter Soldier of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, yet on the other he is now edgy and fearless as Tommy Lee in Hulu’s very good Pam & Tommy. His role here as Steve, presenting as a charming guy who meet (or perhaps ‘meat’) cutes Noa over the grocery aisle before segueing into a dude bro Hannibal Lecter, suggests Stan has hitherto untapped range. He can be cute. He can be sexy. He can be weird and dangerous. There are possibilities.

This is where Fresh gets really interesting as the worm turns and Cave—plus writer Lauryn Kahn—unleash the horror spectacle, though they dial less into wanton bloodletting and torture porn theatrics—as a lesser film would have given way to—and focus more on Noa’s trauma, the victim of a psychopath who she not only trusted but trusted enough to give herself to, believing he was a good guy amidst a morass of sleaze balls. Fresh might be something of an extreme example in how an online relationship can go horrifically wrong, but what is a horror movie but a troubling idea taken to the Nth degree?

In many ways, that’s what disturbs more about Cave’s film. Noa is a victim of her own belief that modern men can be more than just misogynists looking for sex. It is telling that Steve taunts her with meat from a girl he killed called Hope, because he seeks to dehumanise her while at the same time falling under the spell of seeing in her more than what he has, or whatever he has become path of. Fresh suggests Steve might be part of a bigger web that future—unnecessary—sequels could explore but it never loses being about that core dynamic. Noa isn’t just trying to escape Steve by the end but men in general. Even the one guy in the film we believe might help chickens out in the end.

That’s a boon to Fresh in many ways. It never seeks the male saviour. It perhaps would have found such an idea a little distasteful (pun not intended) given the menace of the film is the kind of man—or certainly the kind of actor—who in another universe might be the one protecting women. Equally, Cave & Kahn never succumb to the cliche of the Final Girl. It understands that a collectivised approach to fighting back against such toxic masculinity is more powerful. Also, it doesn’t paint women in an entirely virtuous light; Charlotte Le Bon’s Ann, complicit in the horror, though tortured by it, suggests the truth is never as binary as the online landscape might seem. Women can inflict horror just as men can. Their reasons might simply be more complex.

Fresh perhaps falls down in terms of visual and aesthetic atmosphere. It has shades of the haunting gourmet ghoulishness of Bryan Fuller’s take on Hannibal but equally reminded me of Eli Roth’s much less impressive (in fact actively nasty) Hostel II. It is never that cheap but it’s also never as classy as Hannibal, nor as evocative or lavish. It also evokes Get Out at points as Noa’s friend seeks answers in the world beyond Steve’s twisted palace. 

Yet Fresh stands a fine, sprightly, often funny example of #MeToo inspired horror, which asks morbid questions about male motivations in the dating sphere and taking them to an uncanny place.

★ ★ ★ 1/2

DIRECTOR: Mimi Cave

WRITER: Lauryn Kahn

CAST: Sebastian Stan, Daisy Edgar-Jones, Charlotte Le Bon, Jojo T. Gibbs

STUDIO/DISTRIBUTOR: Searchlight Pictures

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