For most of his life, Evan Dossey generally avoided horror films. The genre made him profoundly uncomfortable. This meant he had enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Over the years, he has asked family and friends which essential horror movies he needs to see and spent the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. Once again, he’s sharing the month with those folks — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is our No Sleep October.
If you have a pulse, chances are you’ve been on at least one bad date. Maybe more than one because for most of us, dating is a numbers game (and the odds aren’t in everyone’s favor).
Look, I’m not saying it’s impossible to find the right person through a dating app. I’m just saying there are a lot of people in the world. You have a much greater chance of running into five Chads in a row who will call you a stuck-up bitch after mooching on all your leftovers in his pretentious hipster scarf before you find someone that isn’t a walking red flag.
Tired of the dating scene, Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) is a relatable heroine for those of us still in the trenches (or only dangling one toe in at this point because frankly, it hardly feels worth it most days). Fresh opens with Noa going on what turns out to be an exceptionally bad first date with someone to whom she was matched on an app — the appropriately named Chad (Brett Dier), who has big opinions about the modern woman no longer embracing femininity while being casually racist to the restaurant servers. One meal and a few painful conversations later, Noa finds herself going home alone when she thinks she’s being followed, running to her car with keys between her knuckles in case she needs to fight off an attacker … because we still live in a society where gendered violence happens daily and yet women continue to be lectured about preventing their own assaults instead of simply holding men accountable.
Enter Steve (Sebastian Stan), the handsome stranger with whom she has a meat cute in the grocery store. Steve seems awkward but charming, with the kind of self-deprecating humor you can’t help but find irresistible. You catch yourself thinking, what the hell? He’s cute and funny, destined to have a flaw, but he can’t be worse than the last guy. Yes, bullshit societal expectations dictate that women should marry by a certain age, and it is empowering to say screw societal norms and the Disney movie propaganda that comes with it. But at the end of the day, a good number of us are still hungry for human connection despite the constant dating fatigue, so maybe it’s easy to ignore the potential warning signs if you do enough mental gymnastics. Who knows, maybe you won’t find The One on Tinder, but you might find them in the fresh-produce aisle.
Edgar-Jones brings an earnestness to Noa that connects her both to the audience and to Steve, particularly in her confession to him mid-first date that she hates everything about the entire dating ritual. Wouldn’t it just be easier sometimes to skip past all of the awkward starts and stops, and get to the real intimacy of knowing someone? Stan is also equally disarming in his easy magnetism as Steve, with an alarmingly intense gaze that pulls you in and makes you feel like the only person in a crowded room. He says everything you want to hear and makes it sound sincere. So what if he’s not on social media? He’s a plastic surgeon with a heart of gold, a great head of hair and a killer smile. It’s every girl’s dream, isn’t it?
It’s at the point that Noa agrees to go away with Steve that I start shouting at the screen because the red flags are practically bright, flashing lights. But that’s easy for me to say because I’ve never had Sebastian Stan ask me to go away with him after only two dates. And it seems like everything’s still going well right up until he puts something in her drink. (That toxic masculinity will ruin the party every single time.)
Opening credits drop. Foreplay over. The real dating nightmare begins.
The moment Noa comes to and realizes she’s chained to the floor, her reaction is visceral and personally upsetting, even for the actress herself. It’s every woman’s worst nightmare, and I felt it in my bones watching Noa go through every stage from denial to anger to bargaining, every emotion etched onto her face before it really sinks in. We never actually think it’s going to happen to us. Of course, Steve soon reveals it’s even worse than your average abduction scenario. Mr. Perfect is in the business of selling human meat to rich people who pay thousands of dollars to eat them, and Noa is his newest food source. But he won’t kill her right away because the fresher the meat, the better. He’s going to keep her alive for as long as he can. Sweet, right?
Stan really shines in balancing the film’s darker and lighter moments with equal parts genuine menace and some real cartoonish villain behavior. It’s truly horrific what he’s doing, but watching him dance around his kitchen with human body parts is also objectively hilarious. The Prince Charming mask drops away to reveal a man genuinely unhinged as we watch the morbid dance montage unfold, packing up body parts with a bow like the most deranged care packages. The women Steve abducts are all disposable to him, nothing but meat waiting to be cooked and eaten, and yet throughout the film, he keeps telling Noa he likes her, in between the mutilations, imminent threats of death or further harm to her person, and the neverending imprisonment.
It always comes back to how much he likes her, a calculated manipulative tactic meant to somehow counteract the abuse he inflicts on her. They explode with rage at you one minute and shower you with affection the next until your head spins. And never once is it romanticized for the viewers, which was my first clue that director Mimi Cave knows what she’s talking about when it comes to some of the more subtle horrors of Fresh. Like Cave, my experience was (thankfully) not with a Steve but someone maybe not too far from that. And no matter who they are or what they do, they always manage to leave their mark.
Like in dating: If you play by the rules, you might get lucky. Just whose rules is not always clear. Steve repeatedly insists to Noa that she’s different from the others, and to appeal to his unpredictable temperament, Noa reciprocates by feigning interest in what Steve’s into like one might do in the early stages of a new relationship, except instead of a sport, it’s eating human flesh. One day, Noa asks Steve what it tastes like, to which he enthusiastically responds with an invitation to a home-cooked dinner. He’s testing the waters with her, seeing how she’ll respond to glimpses into his world; it’s not quite as sophisticated or as sneaky as Hannibal Lecter would have done it, but the sentiment is the same. Steve believes he and Noa are the same, and so he’s making a fumbling attempt to find the monster in her he already sees in himself because she’s “fucked up, too,” just like him.
Partially due to Edgar-Jones’s brilliantly empathetic acting, it’s often hard to tell if Noa is simply playing into the role Steve wants her to in order to bide her time or if there are genuine moments where she finds herself teetering on the edge of madness. Are we witnessing Noa’s genuine internal conflict over surrendering to Steve, or is it all an act? Is there a part of her, however small, that just wants to give in? I can say from experience: That’s the thing about being in an abusive situation with someone, psychologically or otherwise. At some point, no matter how good you think you are at playing their game, you start to question your own sanity. They wear you down for long enough, you’ll eventually catch yourself thinking: Maybe they’re right. It rewires your brain until you’re eventually doing the work for them to gaslight yourself. And when you’re still deep in that situation, you’re only operating in survival mode. You’re only thinking of how to make it from one moment to the next. Add cannibal mind games to the mix, and you have yourself one seriously fucked-up situation.
Cannibalism and romance in media might seem like two things that shouldn’t go together, but it pops up more than you think, with the biggest example of course being the NBC television series Hannibal that I will never shut up about for as long as I live. Even then, the connection between the two is never very closely defined, but Steve takes a pretty comical stab at it when he tells Noa over their plate of human pasta that, “It’s about giving. Giving yourself over to somebody. Becoming one with somebody else, forever. And that’s a beautiful thing. That’s surrender. That’s love.” The irony, of course, is that nothing about the situation with Steve and his victims is consensual, so the only thing it’s really about is power, not love. But I can see how one might confuse the two. And the way Noa stares blankly at Steve as he waxes poetic about the beauty of cannibalism like you’re struggling to listen to your date talk about the most ridiculous thing on the planet is both insanely funny and insanely accurate. Cannibalism is about giving? Sure, Steve.
In watching Noa and Steve go through the motions of their second twisted dinner date, it’s actually the perfect metaphor for the modern dating experience. The ritual of dressing up and painting ourselves for the other person. Wearing something they’ll like that’s not necessarily your style. Trying food they’re into that isn’t really to your taste. In every superficial way, going outside of your comfort zone to impress someone, changing bits of yourself at a time for the person you like without meaning to because we’re creatures conditioned to adapt.
At first, Noa is eating the meat purely for her own survival, but eventually, even that starts to go down easier, consuming the meat like we consume each other over time. Deliberately and without remorse, cracking jokes about who they’re eating this time in between mouthfuls. He wants you to feel special, like you’re the only one, and maybe after a while, some sick part of you does? Part of the abuse is being conditioned to accept crumbs, so being the only one that got a candlelit dinner out of him sounds more thoughtful than it actually is. Maybe a part of Noa is slowly accepting her fate, realizing there’s no escape and trying instead to meet Steve on his level, but he’s hot and cold. One minute, he’s telling you how special you are, and the next minute he’s trying to kill you. Go figure.
SPOILERS BEGIN HERE
Also, he made the mistake of kidnapping your best friend.
Steve and Noa’s ill-fated romance eventually ends the way it starts, with a dance. Where their first dance in Noa’s apartment was a courtship, the one that takes place in Steve’s house of horrors is a dance of seduction that ends with Noa not-so-metaphorically biting his dick off before staging an escape with her best friend, Mollie (Jonica T. Gibbs), and Penny (Andrea Bang), the other remaining victim Noa spent her days talking to through a wall. The three women fight their way out, a brutal encounter in which they repeatedly put themselves in harm’s way despite their surgical wounds in order to protect each other and kill their abuser. It’s a grim but satisfying end to a story that seems impossible and yet hits a little too close to home.
SPOILERS END HERE
The realness of the single-woman experience that director Cave and writer Lauryn Kahn brings to the film is phenomenal. That feeling of nervousness walking alone to your car with a man not far behind you. Getting hit with an unsolicited dick pic two seconds into a chat with someone new. Being told to smile by some jerk who feels entitled to your discomfort. It’s always the same, whether it’s a stranger on the street or the man holding you captive in his serial-killer basement. The inappropriate guy you were seeing turns out to be married (because they’re always married), and then there’s the inconsiderate “U up?” booty call text at the end of the night. Because who hasn’t gotten a text like that from a Chad at the most inconvenient moment?
In the end, the scariest part of Fresh is that the cannibalism is incidental; the rest of the movie could reasonably function without it. The real horror is modern dating; it’s an open market, and in the end, we’re all just meat and bones on someone else’s plate. It’s gruesome and it’s personal, and it’s so real that you just have to laugh about it even when it’s hard to digest. And sometimes you think you know someone … until it turns out you’ve been dating a cannibal.