Lagniappe Podcast: Diabolique (1955)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and Alli discuss H.G. Clouzot’s widely influential horror-noir Diabolique (1955).

00:00 Welcome

01:58 The Matrix Resurrections (2021)
03:50 The Blair Witch Project (1999)
07:55 Firestarter (1984)
12:32 The Dark and the Wicked (2020)
14:25 Candyman (2021)
16:50 RRR (2022)
21:00 Blood Simple (1984)
25:37 Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
32:00 Men (2022)
40:11 Turning Red (2022)
43:35 Petite Maman (2022)
44:45 Vortex (2022)

49:10 Diabolique (1955)

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Men (2022)

There’s been a lot of recent pushback against the suggestion that A24 has an overriding “house style.”  Younger film nerds who were raised on a cinematic diet of Disney-owned studios like Marvel, Pixar, and Lucasfilm can go a little overboard transferring their fandom of boardroom-directed brands to auteur-driven distributors like A24 & Neon, but I don’t know that they’re entirely wrong to do so.  Some of A24’s unified “house style” is an illusion generated by their brand-conscious marketing & distribution strategies (which are truly admirable in the way they lure broad audiences into seeing niche-interest art films).  I can’t deny that their in-house productions often share common tones & tropes, though, even if that’s only a result of selecting which projects to fund, as opposed to dictating what directors deliver in the final edit.  For instance, I’m confident I would’ve guessed what studio produced the “A24 Horror” film Men before I would’ve guessed which frequent A24 employee directed it.  Alex Garland is usually reliable for a chilly sci-fi creepout (Ex Machina, Annihilation, Devs), not an atmospheric folk horror with a blatant 1:1 metaphor behind all its grotesque imagery.  That’s glaringly recognizable A24 territory, even if general praise for the studio as a corporate auteur can be a little silly.

With Men, Alex Garland updates The Wicker Man for the post-Get Out era and ends up making his version of mother! in the process.  Jessie Buckley stars as the Big City outsider intruding on the strange, insular customs of rural Brits, tethered to her London homebase only through daily Facetime calls with her sister (who provides Lil Rel-style running commentary and eventual rescue).  The small-village cult she stumbles into worships at the altar of Misogyny.  The villagers are so unified in their hatred of women that they all share the same actor’s CG-applied face (Rory Kinnear’s), making the title Men shorthand for Yes, All Men.  This is a purely allegorical exercise.  Buckley’s terrorized heroine might be from a real-world London, but the countryside village where she vacations is outright Biblical in its heavy-handed visual metaphors, complete with a first-act reference to forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.  All of the men (or, more accurately, all of the man) in her vicinity blame her for their own moral & behavioral shortcomings, violently punishing her for their own sins.  Each variation of Kinnear represents a different misogynist archetype, from schoolboy mouthbreather to clueless microagressor to repressed incel to base, hateful animal.  In their sickly presence Buckley realizes that all men are the same, all men are creeps, and their pathetic, self-hating abuses against her are not actually her fault, no matter how deftly they’re excused (which is where the allegory echoes beyond the borders of the village to resonate in her real-world social life).

It’s difficult to parse out which aspects of Men are personal to Garland as an auteur vs. which aspects result from the expectations & standards of A24 Horror as a brand.  It’s a useless distinction in a lot of ways, since I appreciate both the director and the studio for consistently bringing provocative genre films to the American multiplex.  The reason I mention it at all is because Men is near impossible to discuss as a standalone work.  Most of the conversation around it focuses more on broad genre trends than it does on this movie in particular, guided by individual audiences’ personal appetite for yet another atmospheric, allegorical horror with blatant social messaging.  Regardless of the way Men participates in the macro trends of A24 productions or modern horror at large, I do think it’s clear that Garland is exploring something personal here.  It’s an anguished, pathetic expression of guilt about the misogyny lurking in all men—even the “nice” ones—that gets stunningly cathartic in its go-for-broke climax, releasing all of the film’s slow-winding tension in a slimy, disjointed fit of body horror.  If you want, you can continue to track the central metaphor in that grotesque display through the ways one form of misogyny (to borrow a term from Genesis) begets another.  It’s also just a broadcast of ugly, difficult-to-stomach impulses direct from Garland’s psyche, which is the exact kind of personal art I’m always looking for at the movies.  I find it strange that Garland stepped outside his home realm of sci-fi to exorcise these particular demons, but I hope enough people appreciate the effort that he feels it was worth the risk.  It’s a great, squirmy little horror film no matter where it fits in the larger cultural landscape or the director’s own catalog.

-Brandon Ledet

Here Before (2022)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Here Before is a psychological thriller about a depressed woman who becomes awkwardly fixated on a nearby mother/daughter duo, triggering a flood of fragmented, fraught emotions surrounding her own relationships with her children.  Like The Lost Daughter, it premiered to positive reviews in 2021, praised for the performances of its central cast and as a promising debut for its director.  Since Maggie Gyllenhaal obviously enjoys more name-recognition cachet in the industry, Stacey Gregg’s own unraveling-mom psych thriller followed a much slower, quieter distribution path, newly available on the library-subscription streamer Hoopla instead of receiving an immediate awards push from the global behemoth Netflix.  As a result, their thematic overlap plays to The Lost Daughter‘s favor, which got there first & louder, but the eerie feeling of having been . . . here before does mirror the latter film’s premise in an interesting way.

In this particular mom-on-the-verge thriller, Andrea Riseborough plays an Irish suburbanite who’s grieving the loss of her young daughter when a new couple moves in next door with a child that looks & acts remarkably like her.  The neighbor child even shares memories & daily habits with Riseborough’s child, as if she were possessed by the daughter’s ghost.  Obviously, Riseborough cannot ignore this phenomenon, which has effectively brought her daughter back to life after a year of heartbreak, and she gradually wedges herself into this young stranger’s life in a way that makes everyone around her deeply uncomfortable.  The story twists & disorients from there, teetering between supernatural horror & communal-gaslighting conspiracy depending on its scene-to-scene whims.  Like with The Lost Daughter, the movie’s strengths lie more its performances & discomforting parental dynamics than it does in its plot, but Gregg’s film concludes with a much more satisfying genre payoff than Gyllenhaal’s.

Even putting Here Before‘s coincidental Lost Daughter parallels aside, it’s not exactly unique in its purpose or tone.  There’s plenty of Atmospheric Horror About Grief out there, especially of the post-Hereditary variety.  Only this one has Andrea Riseborough at center stage, though, and she carries the genre’s tension as expertly as you’d expect.  Rebecca Hall got her own acting showcase in the genre with The Night House.  Sandra Oh got hers in Umma.  Riseborough’s been given plenty of room to show off her range in the past (especially in Possessor, Mandy, and Nancy), but it’s still incredible to see her stretch her legs here.  The way she alternates between scowling at her living, knucklehead teenage son and smiling nervously at the ghost-child who’s replaced her dead daughter is nightmarishly volatile, winding tension so tight it’s incredible her face doesn’t tear in two.  Gregg matches her efforts without outshining them, except for in a music video nightmare sequence that momentarily tips the slowly building dread into true brain-melt terror.

Here Before is a low-budget, 80-minute chiller that’s entire allure is for horror fans already familiar with Riseborough’s talents as a performer.  I’m doing it no favors by comparing it to a Hollywood adaptation of a best-selling novel, produced by three well-established actresses who each received Oscar nominations for their efforts (including Gyllenhaal for Best Adapted Screenplay).  Still, I’d say it’s a more wholly satisfying movie than The Lost Daughter, while sharing many of its themes & saving graces.  It’s a shame fewer people will see it.

-Brandon Ledet

Lagniappe Podcast: Arrebato (1979)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and Alli discuss the recently restored cult curio Arrebato (1979), a trippy not-quite-horror picture about addiction to movies & heroin.

00:00 New Orleans Abortion Fund

07:05 The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
09:05 Scream (1996)
14:55 Movie of the Month
18:05 Intermission
25:15 The Batman (2022)
32:45 Everything, Everywhere, All at Once (2022)
38:45 Raising Arizona (1987)
46:00 Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash (2022)

49:50 Arrebato (1979)

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Lagniappe Podcast: Cronos (1993)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and Alli discuss Guillermo del Toro’s debut feature, the revamped vampire myth Cronos (1993).

00:00 Welcome

01:56 Morbius (2022)
03:34 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
13:28 Scream 4 (2011)
15:35 Crimewave (1985)
18:09 Darkman (1990)
22:24 Cryptozoo (2021)
25:05 The Night House (2021)
27:33 The French Dispatch (2021)
30:47 Death on the Nile (2022)
33:22 Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)
35:05 Deadly Cuts (2022)

37:27 Cronos (1993)

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Lagniappe Podcast: Cherry Falls (2000)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and Alli discuss the post-Scream teen slasher Cherry Falls (2000), starring a very gothy Brittany Murphy.

00:00 Welcome

00:42 Psycho Ape! (2020)
02:55 X (2022)
07:17 RRR (2022)
11:50 Bridgerton
15:33 Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016)
17:10 Josie and the Pussycats (2001)
18:49 Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened (2019)
19:36 What Happened to Monday? (2017)
21:42 Scream (1996)

29:47 Cherry Falls (2000)

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Psycho Ape! (2020)

The mini-DV backyard horror comedy Psycho Ape! proudly promises to be the “dumbest, cheapest” ape movie of all time, and then it delivers exactly that.  In case the audience dare question the scope of that mission statement, the movie is careful to catalog as many dumb-and-cheap ape movies as it can for context.  It treats retro ape-movie ephemera as sacred relics: an official Congo boardgame, a pristine Blu-ray restoration of Schlock, a store-bought gorilla suit you’d expect to see in a Bowery Boys comedy, etc.  Single-scene characters debate their personal rankings of famous primate franchises like King Kong, Planet of the Apes, and Mighty Joe Young as background-noise hangout banter.  When it devolves into a traditional bodycount slasher (with a gorilla-suit murderer instead of a kitchen-knife killer, naturally), the psych expert on the monster’s trail is Dr. Zoomis: a cheeky portmanteau of Dr. Zaius & Dr. Loomis.  Psycho Ape! goes absurdly overboard proving its credentials in dumb-and-cheap ape cinema scholarship, so that when it claims to be the “dumbest, cheapest” ape movie of all time, you have no choice but to take its word for it.  I’m probably supposed to be aging out of this kind of bad-on-purpose, Troma-tinged schlock at this point in my life, but it’s impossible not to be charmed by something so lovingly reverent of such a disreputable, outdated subgenre – especially since it cites my personal favorite title, Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, as one of the all-time greats.

On a dark & eerie night “25 years ago” (so, say, 1995), a “teenage girl slumber party” is crashed by a violent gorilla with an unquenchable bloodlust.  His weapon of choice is a standard-issue Chiquita banana, but it wreaks the same bloody havoc as kitchen knives & meat cleavers in traditional slashers.  Although most of the slumber-party teens are bludgeoned, stabbed, and choked to death by the phallic fruit, the titular psychotic primate does leave behind one anointed final girl: the obsessive ape-movie cineaste Nancy Banana (played by Kansas Bowling, director of the similar retro-schlock throwback B.C. Butcher).  In the following decades, the gorilla continues to kill at random, while Nancy Banana pines for the love that could’ve been, dedicating her life to becoming “the next Jane Goodall” (by which she means she really wants to fuck that ape).  They inevitably re-unite, and the film takes wild detours from its initial slasher template into retro romcom & beach party tropes.  If you’re at all familiar with the history of ape-falls-in-love-with-platinum-blonde cinema, you know that their cutesy romantic bond can only end in tragedy – complete with an obligatory spoof of the genre’s iconic “Twas beauty killed the beast” stinger.  The main difference is that this example also starts with tragedy and is careful to intersperse as many bloody banana stabbings it can afford in-between its cutesy romcom gags.

I just put more effort into pulling a coherent plot out of Psycho Ape! than director Addison Binek intended his audience to bother with.  Structurally, it’s more of a loose sketch comedy than it is a linear narrative.  Binek raised $7,500 in production funds through Kickstarter, then spent it all on goofing off with a gorilla costume, a camera, and as many friends as he could gather (seemingly including a ton of Troma alumni).  It’s basically a hangout movie for sickos, Motern for edgelords.  As proudly dumb & cheap as Psycho Ape! is, though, it’s anything but lazy.  Most hodgepodge horror comedies shot in this scatterbrained, tangential style are infuriatingly lazy (see: Da Hip Hop Witch), but Psycho Ape! establishes a distinctive internal logic that transcends any need for plot or scene-to-scene logic.  It’s a temporal mash-up of schlock ephemera from the past half-century: 50s Benny Hill grabassery, 60s lava lamp psychedelia, 70s first-wave slashings, 80s splatstick gore, post-Kevin Williamson 90s meta horror, 2000s digi-cam backyard movies, 2010s YouTube pranks, sub-Sarah Squirm 2020s gross-outs, and timeless scat & murder gags to tie them all together.  Some of the most sublime moments of the entire picture are just throwaway transition shots of Nancy Banana dancing with her gorilla beau in a vintage yellow bikini, with everyone involved openly laughing at how idiotic the project is on a conceptual level.  The fun they’re having on-“set” is infectious.  It’s a reckless party movie dressed up like a bodycount horror, but it’s oddly sincere in its dedication to having a good time and to honoring the ape-horror comedies that came before it.  I had a blast.

-Brandon Ledet

X (2022)

Considered in isolation, X is okay.  It can be a little phony & shallow in spurts, but it’s a decent enough slasher with novel themes & settings not usually explored in the genre.  Considered in a larger scope, it’s frustratingly stagnant. It’s getting extremely tired watching so many modern horror movies borrow their authenticity from vintage grindhouse cinema instead of genuinely attempting something new & risky.  Ti West directed his breakout calling-card movie House of the Devil thirteen long years ago, and he was already indulging this kind of 70s & 80s throwback aesthetic back then.  Hell, Rob Zombie directed House of 1,000 Corpses two decades ago.  There have certainly been better grindhouse throwbacks made since 2003, but I don’t know that there have been any transcendent triumphs that justify wallowing in that nostalgia swamp for this long instead of attempting something freshly upsetting.  Even when X excels in its go-for-broke moments of icky discomfort, I find myself questioning why this filmmaking mode is always set in the 70s or 80s now and buried under so many retro style markers.  It feels stuck, as if West and his contemporaries are outright afraid of modern settings & new tones, using disreputable vintage subgenres as a stylistic, contextual crutch.

Worse, X is outright condescending to one of the drive-in era subgenres it’s supposedly paying tribute to.  This is a grimy slasher film about a small crew of subprofessional pornographers who are slaughtered by elderly Evangelicals in rural Texas, 1979.  The film is most satisfying as a Texas Chainsaw-inspired creep-out, unleashing a long-isolated family of murderous weirdos onto the big-city “sex fiends” who invade their small town.  It’s also admirable in the way it highlights the true independent filmmaking spirit shared between horror & pornography in that era – two low-budget/high-profitability genres that were closely paralleled in their production & reputation.  It’s annoying, then, that X‘s view of late-70s pornography is so phony & patronizing.  Its six-person film crew is supposedly committed to creating porn that can be enjoyed & appreciated as legitimate art instead of disposable smut, but they’re working on a goofy cliché titled The Farmer’s Daughters, which they intend to distribute on VHS (despite shooting on film, a more expensive format).  There’s a bizarre dissonance there, as if they’re discussing the production of Equation to an Unknown but in practice filming scenes from Bat Pussy. The audience has no choice but to laugh at their artistic ambitions, since the conflict between their words and their work is played as a joke.  I hate to be such a scold about this, but presenting the concept of artful pornography as inherently funny is pretty hack & outdated at this point, especially if your recreation of it is the same funk guitar & screeching orgasms as a 90s sketch parody.  This goes doubly so if you’re borrowing the look & feel of vintage pornography—low-budget genre films made fully in earnest—to boost the entertainment value of your A24-distributed horror mainstreamer.  It’s insulting.

It’s a testament to Mia Goth’s fearlessness & “X-factor” appeal that X amounts to anything remarkable at all.  She stars in dual roles as a young porno actress and her elderly, sexually-repressed admirer: a lonely old woman whose Evangelical husband no longer desires her, so she violently seeks extramarital satisfaction with the unsuspecting youth they lure to their farm.  There’s something special about the intergenerational dynamic Goth shares between the two versions of herself.  She paws at her own flesh in lecherous hunger, willing to burn down the entire world just to get one last taste of youthful beauty before death.  The closest The Farmer’s Daughters’ crew gets to announcing X‘s central theme is when they lament “One day we’re going to be too old to fuck.” It’s an epiphany that doubles as a blanket excuse for hedonism and as a genuinely horrific vision of their sexless, geriatric future.  What I can’t figure out is why West felt the need to bury that vision under so much phony vintage-grindhouse cheese.  His heart really isn’t in the throwback genre markers anyway.  The porno recreations are treated as a joke, and the slasher scenes include cross-cutting transition techniques that have no discernible purpose besides feeling quaintly outdated.  It’s not enough that West mocks his pornographer characters for wanting to make ambitious art out of smut; he can’t even match their “avant-garde cinema” ambitions in his own work.  Only Goth comes through with anything worth championing here. At least she gets to do it twice.

As far as retro porno-horrors go, X is no Knife+Heart.  I’m not even convinced it’s the better Texas Chainsaw throwback from this year.  There is a great, discomforting slasher film lurking somewhere in the tension between those two genre divides, though.  It’s just a shame it wasn’t allowed to be its own thing without paying homage to an already overmined past.

-Brandon Ledet

Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021)

I have a severe case of Oscars Brain this week, a condition that makes me think of every movie I’m watching in an Awards Season context that will cease to matter in just a few days.  It’s an embarrassing affliction.  Pray that it heals soon.

Intellectually, I know that the Oscars are a ridiculous pageant with no genuine implications for what pictures qualify as The Best Movies of the Year (except maybe in its winners having an easier time getting their Best-Movies-of-Next-Year projects funded).  The ceremony is a great excuse to watch challenging dramas I’d usually put on the backburner of my sprawling watchlist.  It’s also a great excuse to gawk at beautiful, sparkly gowns on television while eating junk food.  Those are ultimately very superficial functions in the grand scheme of cinematic discourse, though.  I don’t put much emotional energy into the wins & snubs of the awards race, but I do enjoy the ritual of tuning in with friends, pizza, and champagne on hand.

It’s just nice to have one month out of the year when everyone talks about movies that don’t star superheroes or talking cartoon animals.  If you ask most audiences, there have only been three actual movies released in the past year, the ones that feature Spider-men, Batmen, and Ghostbusters.  The Oscars are a nice respite from that constant IP-worship chatter among The Fans™, which dominates all online discussion of movies for the other eleven months of the calendar.  Hilariously, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is trying their best to court The Fans as a potential TV audience, pushing for all the Spider-Men and other supertwunks out there to share the spotlight during the ceremony in semi-official “Fan Favorite” awards, as if the literal billions of dollars they earn crowding real movies out of the box office isn’t already enough of a reward.  To be honest, it’s making me extremely petty.  I can’t hear the word “Ghostbuster” without rolling my eyes, desperate for anyone to talk about a genuinely substantive movie for a goddamn change.  For all of pageantry, inanity, and bribery that makes The Oscars a total sham, at least it does clear space for real movies like Drive My Car, Parallel Mothers, and The Power of the Dog to breathe in the daylight until Captain Morbius or whatever the fuck swoops into suck up all the oxygen again.

The new Ghostbusters film gives that petty reflex a lot of ammunition too.  Afterlife is absolutely absurd as a nostalgia-bait IP booster.  It somehow misremembers the original Ghostbusters franchise as an E.T.-era Spielberg heart-warmer instead of a frat-boy special effect comedy.  Instead of using its ghost-infestation premise as an excuse for rapid-fire joke delivery (a tradition that was kept alive in the previous 2016 reboot), this lands closer to the Stranger Things version of 80s nostalgia, complete with a major role for breakout stranger thing Finn Wolfhard.  There are constant Who You Gonna Callbacks to things that used to be jokes in the original Ghostbusters film—marshmallows, Twinkies, firemen poles, retro commercials for the titular ghostbusting service—but they’re treated with a reverent awe that makes absolutely no sense considering the series’ goofball origins.  Afterlife is an earnest drama about a family who moves from the big city to a rural farm to confront the mess left behind by their absentee patriarch (Egon Spengler, for all you Bustheads out there), haunted both by his dusty belongings and by an upswell of actual ghosts.  It’s also a throwback to 80s Amblin kids’ adventure films, to the point where a wisecracking side character named Podcast functions as all of the Goonies characters rolled into a single out-of-time archetype.  What it’s not is a traditional Ghostbusters film, at least not beyond the familiarity of the logo and a few unnecessary cameos.

As intensely odd as Afterlife is as a nostalgia trigger for adults, I do think it’s passably adorable as a standalone children’s film.  With the rare exception of titles like MirrorMask & City of Ember (which, appropriately enough, also features a small role for Bill Murray), I can’t think of many dark, live-action fantasy adventure films made for young audiences in recent decades.  Even Stranger Things feels pitched to an older, nostalgic audience who remembers growing up with kids-on-bikes horror adventures in the 80s instead of their fresh-eyed children.  In that way, I think Ghostbusters: Afterlife is most useful as an intergenerational bonding tool that kids can enjoy for its legitimate spooky-adventure charms while their knucklehead parents point and smile at the callbacks & Easter eggs, drooling onto their Target-brand Ghostbusters t-shirts between nostalgia pops.  It’s frustrating that we can’t make children’s movies like this without tying them to pre-existing IP from 40 years ago, but hey, that’s the pop culture hellscape we’re rotting in, so you gotta celebrate the small victories where you can find them.

There are a lot of small touches to Ghostbusters: Afterlife that genuinely brought me joy – mostly the Creechification of Slimer in the nü-ghost Muncher (Josh Gad’s greatest performance to date) and Carrie Coon’s aggressive disinterest in absolutely everything happening around her as the non-plussed mom.  I can’t claim that those minor, momentary joys justify how much cultural discourse the Ghostbusters brand has generated over the past few years.  This movie is far too shallow & disposable to earn its vast pop culture real estate.  If it weren’t for all the online chatter about how the Oscars and critical institutions ignore movies that people have actually heard of, though, I don’t think that shallowness would bother me.  This is a perfectly cromulent kids’ movie with plenty of soothing nostalgia indulgences to lure in those kids’ parents, which is perfectly fine.  I just really wish there were more space to occasionally discuss something else.  I don’t know if that would require audiences or producers to be more adventurous in what creative voices they pay attention to, but it really is exhausting talking about fluff like this all year round when there’s not much to it.  It’s sad how vital the Oscars are in breaking up that monotony, since that ceremony is itself equally shallow & silly, just in a different way.

-Brandon Ledet

Fresh (2022)

Is Fresh the world’s first torture-porn romcom?  I have no clue how to go about verifying that claim, but it’s the exact kind of hook this movie needs to reel in an audience.  After premiering to positive reviews at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, it was picked up for quick, wide distribution by Searchlight Pictures.  That used to entail a gradual, platformed theatrical rollout built on word-of-mouth promotion . . . when Searchlight was owned by Fox. But since Searchlight is now a Disney subsidiary, it means Fresh was unceremoniously dumped on Hulu.  It may have topped a few online publications’ “What’s New to Streaming This Week” roundups the weekend it premiered, but in a month or so it will have effectively disappeared from the public consciousness.  So, let’s go ahead and confidently call Fresh the world’s first torture-porn romcom so it has fighting chance to get noticed at all; researching that claim could only spoil the fun. 

The first half-hour of Fresh is pure romcom.  Or it’s at least the kind of “indie” romcom about messy, listless twentysomethings that regularly premiere at Sundance year after year: Obvious Child, Together Together, The Big Sick, etc.  Daisy Edgar-Jones stars as a Los Angeles transplant who’s struggling to survive the anguish of first-date awkwardness in the Tinder era.  Some of the indignities of modern dating are genuinely harrowing, like the threat of unsolicited dick pics or the threat of violent physical retaliation after even the gentlest rejection.  Mostly, though, her dates with self-absorbed losers literally named Chad are played for cutesy comical effect.  Her luck turns around when she meets an eerily handsome & charming bachelor played by Sebastian Stan, who appears both well-adjusted and genuinely interested in her as a person; he’s the only potential match who asks her questions about herself, anyway.  It’s when they officially pair up that the opening credits finally roll, and the film perverts its modern romcom trappings with some unexpected torture porn viciousness.  I won’t reveal too much of the post-twist premise, but I’ll at least advertise that it encourages Stan to chew more than just the scenery as Edgar-Jones’s romantic foil, and he is ravenous.

Fresh‘s straight-to-streaming distribution path isn’t the only reason it needs a killer hook.  This is cute, sick stuff, but it ultimately doesn’t have much to say as anything but a style exercise.  You could sum up its entire thematic scope as a morbidly literal interpretation of the idiom “Dating apps are meat markets,” which is potentially a problem for a horror comedy’s two full hours in length.  The style is substance in this case, though, not only in the tension of its competing torture-porn/romcom tones but also in how first-time director Mimi Cave relentlessly disorients the audience with twirling camera work.  It’s especially impressive as a COVID-era production, given that most scenes only involve one-to-three actors sharing the screen at any time, but it doesn’t feel dramatically constrained by pandemic precautions the way a lot of recent thrillers do.  There’s a hungry audience out there who would appreciate what Fresh is doing if they only knew it existed, which is why I’m pushing to brand it with its own unique genre-mashup superlative.  There have been plenty of other cannibal comedies & romantic horrors over the years, so let’s give this one its own title to defend as the first of its niche: the torture-porn romcom.

-Brandon Ledet