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Hungry for a Feminist Slasher? Fresh Isn't Quite It
It's okay, but a little bland.
Slashers are all about supposedly weak final girls enacting bloody revenge upon monstrous, abusive men. Mimi Cave’s debut feature Fresh gets its teeth all the way into those tropes in order to feed consumers a consciously feminist horror film.
The meal is satisfying. But if you’re hungering for a more structural critique of patriarchy and power, this isn’t quite the right dish.
Romcom Gone Wrong
The movie opens with a dead-on (ahem) send-up of romcoms. Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) is a twenty-something navigating a heterosexual online dating world populated almost exclusively, it seems, by creeps and blowhards.
Then, unexpectedly, she runs into the perfect guy in the supermarket. Plastic surgeon Steve (Sebastian Stan) is charming, witty, and warm. And he looks like Sebastian Stan. And he’s a plastic surgeon. Did I mention he looks like Sebastian Stan? What could go wrong?
As you’ve no doubt guessed, what could go wrong is everything and then some. Steve takes Noa with him on a surprise trip to a scenic getaway. There he drugs her. When she wakes up, she’s chained to a bed in a small room. As she listens horrified, he explains that he kidnaps women to sell their meat to obscenely wealthy cannibal Satanists.
Thus the moral: there are no good men to date. No, not even one. Not even if he looks like Sebastian Stan.
Everyone is raving about Ethan Hawke in The Black Phone, but that over-the-top rant-and-then-rant-some-more performance looks one-note compared to Stan’s portrayal of Steve. The villain here never stops with the winning smile, and he seems to think kidnapping and cannibalism are minor infractions that shouldn’t interfere with the ultimate happy romcom resolution.
Steve is entitlement embodied. As a good-looking wealthy white guy, he knows he should be forgiven everything, even the odd meatball made out of human flesh.
It’s significant that no man comes to save Noa. Her hopes for rescue rest on her best friend Mollie (Jonica T. Gibbs.) Sisterhood, not romance, is the source of hope in the film.
The Patriarchy Will Eat You
Fresh recalls other feminist horror films like Ms. 45 or Jennifer’s Body, in which men are the monsters. The best of these moves get at the way in which patriarchy is both inhuman and uncontainable—a malevolent, all-pervasive force.
In The Invisible Man (2020), for example, the titular antagonist is terrifying because he is everywhere and nowhere. You can’t see him, but he observes and punishes. He’s not just one monster. He’s a system of control, not least because he forces you to internalize him. When you can’t see the Man, you have to assume he’s looking over your shoulder. Which means that patriarchy makes you police yourself.
Fresh gestures towards this kind of larger monstrosity. Steve’s secret society of like-minded flesh-eaters is compared to the 1%. Someone more powerful than him is paying for these services.
But those more powerful forces never really make an appearance. Nor does the movie make a strong case that it’s villian is just another iteration of male ugliness.
Steve is basically one awful person. He’s nightmarish, but the film’s efforts to make him emblematic of the nightmare of patriarchy (by showing other men who aren’t willing to help for example) don’t quite bite.
Hate Steve, Not Yourself
Fresh also nods to body horror films, especially to The Human Centipede. That movie also involved a kidnapping surgeon doing hideous things to those with the misfortune to find themselves under his knife.
Here again, though, Fresh feels limited. The Human Centipede loathes the human form and demands that its viewers loathe the human form as well. Watching it is repulsive because it sews your eyes back into your own orifice. If you enjoy the movie you enjoy the ick, and hate yourself. and enjoy hating yourself. It’s a circle of segments with no way out. You are the hated, stigmatized thing you loathe and embrace.
Fresh is a lot more straightforward. The cannibal is Steve, and Steve is disgusting. Noa sometimes pretends to find Steve’s grotesque appetites appealing, but that’s just an understandable tactic to lower his guard.
Horror often urges you to sympathize with the monster, or to imagine yourself as the monster. But there’s not much of that here; Steve is a bad guy and his evil cannibalism is gag-inducing. He’s a cleaned-up iteration of the monstrous-family in Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre. (Though Cave probably has even less sympathy for her villain than Hooper had for his.)
A Meat and Potatoes Movie
None of this makes Fresh a bad movie. On the contrary, it’s an enjoyable movie, with a firm grasp on genre history, some effectively shocking visuals (the freezer, ugh) and a solid cast.
It just flirts with being something more: a pointed satire of romcoms, an exploration of the horror of patriarchy, an unsettling taste of the lip-smacking vileness of bodies. Ultimately, though, despite the fancy plating, Fresh is not that interested in exotic meals.
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