(3/5) A shaky but promising entry into the modern wave of thought-provoking horror from Mimi Cave.
On paper, Mimi Cave’s Fresh sounds like a slam dunk for anyone who loves feminist body horror. We follow Noa, played by charming star on the rise Daisy Edgar Jones, who’s incredibly frustrated with the modern hellscape that is online dating. This changes when she has a cheesy, straight out of a romcom meet cute with Sebastian Stan’s alluring Steve at the grocery store. It’s refreshing for Noa to meet someone the old-fashioned way, AKA not on a dating app, and it’s part of why she falls for Steve’s manipulation tactics so easily. We follow their budding romance until things quickly go awry, with a chilling title card sequence 30 minutes in to signify the shift to full-fledged horror/thriller. It's revealed that Steve has ulterior motives, namely to kidnap Noa for his lucrative business selling meat from young girls to an underground Cannibalistic community of extremely rich men. It’s a brilliant satirical allegory for the way men prey on women like objects to be devoured, treating them as figurative pieces of meat to be chewed up and spit out.
As a satire about the horrors of modern dating, Fresh is smart. It captures the aspects of dating, and life in general, that make existing as a woman feel like a horror film. After a horrible first date with a guy from a dating app in the opening of the film, played chillingly well by Brett Dier, Noa lets him know she doesn’t see it working. In response to her rejection, he immediately turns cold and vindictive, throwing vitriol-fueled insults her way as he storms off. On her way to her car after, she notices a man walking behind her. Like literally any woman I know would and has, she enters panic mode, fumbling with her keys and frantically trying to unlock her car door, immediately feeling that this man might be attempting to assault or kidnap her. The suspense is unbearable because it’s all too familiar, and then it’s revealed that the shadowy figure approaching is a harmless man carrying his baby, to Noa’s relief. These early moments depicting the horrors of being a young woman offer more genuine horror than the film’s cannibalism plot.
A film that involves an underground cannibalism ring should be terrifying and fascinating, right? We spend a great deal of the film post-opening credits in the basement of the home where Steve keeps his victims captive, but the atmosphere of the space feels off, it’s decorated and lit like a stage, and it often feels like watching scenes from a stage play, in a way that feels contrived and sucks much of the potential for genuine suspense and fear out of the situation. There is so much to be unpacked around the cannibalism of it all: we get glimpses into the twisted underground cannibalism ring Steve sells to, but we don’t understand much about it. Is it a cult organization? How does it operate? We are kept mostly in the dark regarding the details of this underworld. Another interesting but underdeveloped layer is the reveal that his wife, who we assume is his accomplice, has an amputated leg, revealing she was once a victim as well.
Much of the success of the film’s horror hinges on Sebastian Stan, and I, unfortunately, couldn’t find myself buying his performance or understanding why Noa falls for him. His Steve morphs from an unconvincing flirt to a cartoonish caricature of a psychopath. Sebastian Stan is playing it to the theatrical comedic max, while Edgar-Jones is playing it with pure realism, and that doesn’t mesh well. It could maybe work if we weren’t supposed to find him somewhat alluring like Noa does and understand why he seduces her, but because of his wacky portrayal, it never quite adds up. I couldn’t help but feel like this film does not ever reach the potential established by a great premise, bogged down by a script that feels underdeveloped and plagued with certain stereotypes, one of them being the unfortunate “sassy black friend” trope. Noa’s best friend Mollie, played by Jojo T. Gibbs, is given a bit more to do as the film progresses.
Mollie has been on a relentless quest to track Noa down, with the help of her ex and the bartender that served them on their first date. Watching Mollie piece together the clues, repeatedly seeing right through Steve’s tricks to misguide Noa because she knows her best friend well enough to detect bullshit and see right through his games, is one of the finer through lines of the film. After a bloody final showdown between Steve, Mollie, Noa, and Penny, another girl being held captive and cannibalized, Noa and Mollie have a classic horror final girls moment, covered in blood sitting in the forest outside Steve’s compound. Noa says to Mollie “I fucking love you, Mollie,” and Mollie responds “I love you more.” Every girl deserves a friend that will rescue them from a horrible date, and in this case.. will put on their metaphorical FBI cap, track down your kidnapper, and kill for you.
The new wave of horror that tackles deep themes with arthouse visuals is endlessly exciting; from Julie Ducournau’s Titane to Rose Glass’s SaintMaud, we have had many masterful, bold, sizzling entries into the modern horror cannon. Not all of them can be home runs, nor should they have to be, and that’s okay. They’re still daring to use horror as a vehicle to explore complex themes, and that in itself is something to be applauded. A cannibalistic horror film as a way to view how men and women exist in the dating space, women being preyed upon by predatory men: it’s a spot-on allegory that just isn’t quite executed to the level it could have been. But it’s enough of a thought-provoking and inspired debut that I’m looking forward to what Mimi Cave does next.