I was approached about reviewing this film with the promise that “this movie F**KS,” and I have to say, it kind of does. The first actual line of dialogue we hear past the opening noises is an indicator of things to come, as well as an attitude for the period of time a movie like Fresh Hell embodies: “Another shit day in f**ktown.” It’s a jerky ride on a shoestring budget, full of unstable effort, and perhaps a cry for help from people who were overly frustrated during the pandemic, but like many loud outbursts, it eventually runs out of steam and ends in a long sigh.
The story starts with a scene we’re all familiar with now, a Zoom call and online meetings after the recent series of lockdowns and social distancing kept more people indoors and catching up with old friends through technology. That’s exactly what this group is doing. They’re a bunch of people who knew each other back in their college theater program, and now they’re reconnecting. Some things change, but most stay the same as the old classmates realize where their friends are at now. Who has kids, whose career is on hold, who moved back in with their parents, who started selling drugs for extra cash, and who has become a right-wing conspiracy theorist — that sort of thing. We’ve all been there.
While they chat, many references to the immediate times and internet culture are thrown around. Talks of Bumble dating, doing dabs, Jarsquatter, edgy humor, and a few meme-like talking points, as well as odd phrases, work towards making things relatable. It’s also the part where a ton of exposition is dropped about each character. This means it’s easy to know the essentials about everyone quickly, as they discuss the existential dread that comes with aging, COVID, and only being able to communicate online. We also get a montage of what people who are close do online when they get together and act dumb, but that’s before The Stranger shows up. Someone hijacks their group call, and that’s when things really get started, right at the end of the first act.
The film is divided into three acts, with the first two taking place online while the third is shot more like a traditional movie — fitting for the confrontation with Stranger. The style is suspenseful, even while feeling hacked together, though this is partly in the way it was shot and because of the intended medium. The poster for the film is a great example of this. I had to keep staring at it, but the more I looked, the more it fell apart. Parts of the movie feel almost like trolling, but nothing is ever boring. Fresh Hell goes out of its way to capture a rawness, especially after the people wearing dog masks begin showing up. That being said, I never wanted to pause the movie or turn it off, even when I was laughing.
All of the actors involved have awkward conversations, odd moments, or lack a connection that should be there, but that gives this film more of a natural feel with how it’s presented: two parts online horror, one part stage drama. The acting isn’t amazing, but everyone is in their role and working with the scene. Ryan Imhoff, who plays the antagonistic Stranger, gives a lot here, but almost overdoes it at a couple of points. There were some moments where I struggled to understand what he said, and at times, his expressiveness was so good it could be distracting.
I was enjoying the build-up, but the ending isn’t going to be for everyone. The conclusion is more of a release and an expression of the journey, rather than an explanation that will satisfy everyone. Imhoff, as the writer and co-director as well as one of the main actors, feels like he just had a lot to get off his chest about the year 2020, but when he was done, that was all that needed to be said. The somewhat supernatural vibe at the start is fun, like how the Stranger interacts with others. I enjoyed his parlor tricks, as they made what could have been boring talking heads more engaging. I just wish the third act didn’t feel like it abruptly changed its pacing along with the format. I wasn’t disappointed, just a little let down.
Fresh Hell goes hard on sexual tension, bringing it into the conversations often, and then jumping the horny shark when a penis comes out and the mutilation begins. A bit unexpected and probably not going to work for a lot of people, but I was laughing, especially when he kept doing stuff with it afterward. It has gore, a brief stint into torture porn, and some surprisingly startling visuals that work extremely well via in-camera effects. They have fun with filters, and a couple of goofy ones that work for the sheer mocking nature of the experience.
They do a lot with a little here, and no matter how much of the movie doesn’t quite fit together perfectly, I’m giving the cast and crew a lot of credit for putting themselves out there and daring to do something different in the genre. There have been other pandemic projects that are much worse and that don’t do anything interesting. So while Fresh Hell might not be the animal in bed it fantasizes about, it knew how to get my pants off at least. I can’t wait to see what a film like this can do with a little practice.
As ComingSoon’s review policy explains, a score of 6.5 equates to “Decent.” It fails to reach its full potential and is a run-of-the-mill experience.