Ryan Imhoff and Matt Neal’s Fresh Hell opens with a three-by-three grid of nine faces, each occupying their own mini frame. Had this monochrome Rubik’s cube of folk appeared on screen any time before 2020, its principal reference point would have been the opening credits to television’s family sit-com The Brady Bunch (1969-1974) – but now, in the era of Covid-19, it is unmistakably an online Zoom conversation, instantly evoking the live-streaming horror of Rob Savage’s era-defining Host (2020). What is more, we notice the man (played by co-director Neal) at the centre screaming in manic anguish and agony, even as the eight interlocutors around him chat and laugh away oblivious to the raging storm in their midst. His screams of existential angst, visible if unheard, are a Munch-like cri de cœur encapsulating the isolation, alienation and insanity of lockdown.
After this prologue, Fresh Hell will begin with a different set of personnel appearing one by one for a Zoom chat, in colour rather than black-and-white. “Another shit day in fuck town,” says Grace (Lanise Antoine Shelley) to herself as she is first to join the session. Seven years earlier, she and her seven friends – Todd (Rob Fagin), Cynthia (Crystal Kim), Brian (Tyler Owen Parsons), Kara Huff (Christine Vrem-Ydstie), James (Randolph Thomspon), Scott (Will Mobley) and Laura (Christina Reis) – were all fellow students at a drama school in Greece, Ohio, but they have since drifted apart, until now the perfect shitstorm of Trump’s America and global pandemic, of public meltdown and personal loss, has brought them back together again in search of solace and solidarity. “It’s times like these when you just want to reach out to the people you love,” as Todd puts it, “we’re all spread across the country, we’re all doing different things now, but here we all are. The world is falling apart but here we all are.”
Yet even as Grace struggles to know how to grieve the recent, distanced death of her older sister Georgia, someone else is missing. Laura is late to the chat, and when her camera eventually flickers on, it is not the female ballet dancer on the other end, but a bearded, barking Stranger (played by the films writer and co-director Imhoff). Despite his unhinged behaviour, Grace is persuaded to let him stay when she hears that his little brother also passed – but then this peculiar man pulls off a number of uncanny stunts on camera, culminating in him (apparently) cutting off his own penis and feeding it to a dazed, dog-masked Laura.
While the rest of the chat group laughs it off and gets on with their lives, Grace cannot relinquish the sense of dread that this strange incident has inspired – and as she sees more digital footage of men in dog masks apparently killing her other friends one by one (even though they all seem still to be active online), she begins to lose her grip on reality. Even when she finally meets the Stranger for real, albeit on a theatrical stage where a film (or at least a “multisocial media platform art installation by way of Godard”) is being shot, it remains unclear whether what she – and we with her – witness is actually happening, an elaborate prank, or hallucinatory psychodrama.
Made in 2020 under lockdown conditions by an ensemble of Chicago theatre artists who, like many of the film’s characters, found their lives suspended by Coronavirus, Fresh Hell does not hide its theatrical nature, from its formal division into three acts, to its climax in an actual theatre – yet it is a film of mixed media, with video chats and phone clips forming an essential part of its fragmentary, postmodern texture, confronting the bewildered Grace with an unstable reality where everything is quoted, performative and artificial. It is a hellish slasher – and torture porn – with all the props and costumes, cameras and fakery showing.
Yet even if the Stranger may be a nightmarish construct – “stranger than you can know,” as he himself puts it, “a man for these times!” – the horrors that he represents and embodies are real enough, as we are reminded by the snippets of news audio (about police violence, spreading infection, viral conspiracy and political trumpery) that regularly punctuate the film, binding its hermetic events to the world beyond. Mostly, though, Fresh Hell captures a very particular mood – of confusion, of paranoia, of dislocation, of despair – that we all at times experienced in 2020, and puts it under the spotlight. It then remains up to us to determine if we think the curtains have truly closed on all this pernicious, manipulative play-acting, or if the (shit)show just keeps going on. For even if this film’s staged intervention and resolution leave you smiling with cathartic relief, you may still be screaming on the inside.
Strap: Ryan Imhoff and Matt Neal’s abstract, atomised slasher finds the paranoid panic in pandemic, while staging anxiety and angst in the age of Trump
© Anton Bitel