We need to get into spoiler territory pretty quickly to talk about Fresh in any meaningful way, so if you’re particularly sensitive to that kind of thing, here’s the scoop: if you want to see a pretty good rom-com starring Daisy Edgar-Jones and Sebastian Stan turn into a pretty great satirical horror movie about the commodification of the self through social media and dating apps, point your browser to Disney+ and hit play.
Edgar-Jones is Noa, a young woman who is clearly having a rough time of it in the modern dating scene until she meets the charming Steve (Sebastian Stan). Handsome, funny, self-deprecating, and even a doctor, Steve ticks all the right boxes, so Noa doesn’t think twice about going away for a weekend with him. But if something seems too good to be true, it probably is, which is why Noa wakes up in a cell in the basement of Steve’s conveniently remote country home.
Steve — real name Brendan — is a cannibal. But that’s not the worst of it — market forces are a bitch even in the human flesh demimonde, and if there are no clean hands under capitalism, then we can’t really blame ol’ Steve for finding his economic niche, which is procuring the flesh of women for wealthy cannibal clients. It’s a high-end business with a personal touch — each cut of meat is vacuum-sealed for freshness and packaged with a photo of the victim, a biography, and some personal items of clothing. And to make sure he’s selling only the freshest cuts, he keeps his victims alive for as long as possible as he sections off their bodies piece by piece. Noa needs to keep her wits about her to turn the tables on Steve/Brendan — but how far is she willing to go?
Directed by Mimi Cave, here making her feature film debut, from a script by Lauryn Kahn, Ibiza (2018), Fresh contains echoes of plenty of other films and series — the central dilemma is not a million miles away from Rob Reiner’s Misery (1990), the cordon blue cannibal culture stuff can’t help but reference Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal (2013-15), and there’s a hint of Dexter (2006-13) in the film’s playful approach to body horror (and for fans of the novels, the image of the “yodeling potato” comes to mind when contemplating what Steve’s victims must look like deep into the process of butchery). It’s also useful to compare the 2022 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which elided the cannibalism of its source material but upped the gore. Here, the horror is mostly (not completely, mind you) bloodless, and Cave works wonders with implication rather than in-your-face grand Guignol gore. It’s queasily transgressive; forget Earthling, this might be the most effective pro-vegan movie ever made.
The plot is a serviceable enough race-against-time with some clever twists and variations on the theme as Noa’s BFF Mollie (Jonica T. Gibbs) tries to track down her whereabouts (shades of 2017’s Get Out), but what really impresses is the way Fresh strips back the weirdly commodified nature of modern dating, the way we sell ourselves, or versions of ourselves, to an anonymous marketplace with no idea who we’re performing for until they swipe right. It’s the “meat market” metaphor taken to its logical conclusion.
Sebastian Stan and Daisy Edgar-Jones are great in the film, and one of the key elements in play is the way that the film, right up until the moment the rug gets pulled out from under us, could be a straight rom-com. That requires palpable chemistry, and these two have it in spades. Fresh is a great calling card for Edgar-Jones, who I’d previously only seen in the recent War of the Worlds (2019-21) miniseries, and Stan gets to add yet another charming bastard role to his collection — I suspect when he’s off Marvel duties, he revels in playing against type, and between this, Pam & Tommy (2022), I, Tonya (2017), and even The 355 (2022), he’s cornering the market on charismatic guys you shouldn’t trust.
Fresh is just a perfect little slice of commercial horror. It’s a bit of a shame that it’s going straight to streaming because it plays fantastically with a theatre audience. Still, if you’re picking flicks for a Friday night movie marathon, it’s absolutely the best of the current crop of crowd-pleasing horrors.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Travis Johnson