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The opening credits of Fresh don't arrive until the 33-minute mark. That's appropriate because the first half-hour feels like a short film in its own right. It tells the story of a woman and man meeting, falling for each other, and prepping to take their first getaway as a couple. Thirty-three minutes in is precisely when the story shifts, shedding the romantic-comedy vibe it starts off with and clueing us in that something sinister is about to happen. Subversion of this sort is pervasive in the movie. In fact, it's the most admirable of many admirable qualities.

I'm not going to tell you anything that happens after the extended intro. Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) is a perpetually unlucky-in-love single woman. We first meet her on a blind date from hell, where the guy turns into a misogynist prick as soon as she refuses to kiss him goodnight. Soon after, she has an encounter with plastic surgeon Steve (Sebastian Stan) in a grocery store. They flirt, she gives him her number, they hook up, etc. Noa's best friend Mollie (Jojo T. Gibbs) thinks Steve sounds suspicious. He's got no Instagram account, after all! Noa nevertheless agrees to go on a weekend trip with her new boyfriend. First, though, they have to swing by his place, a large home out in the middle of nowhere.

What happens next is shocking, gross, and very, very bad for Noa. The twist may be off-putting for some viewers, but don't bail. Fresh is one of the most smartly-written horror films of the last decade, and what happens – while intentionally repellant – is handled with a flair for astute psychological details. You can already surmise that Steve is not a good guy. What he does and why he does it prove to be more substantive than we often see in horror, speaking to the idea of one's soul being susceptible to the corrupting influence of ego.

Noa, meanwhile, quickly comes to realize that she can't merely jump out a window. To escape, she'll need to read Steve like a book, figuring out a non-sexual way to seduce him and, consequently, make him vulnerable. Doing that forces her to go to uncomfortable places. Lauryn Kahn's superb screenplay gets those ideas across intelligently, mixing them with thrilling twists you don't anticipate.

As well written as it is, Fresh requires pitch-perfect performances to fully succeed, and it's got them. Daisy Edgar-Jones exquisitely conveys how Noa sheds her timidity in the situation, channeling her fear into a desire to outsmart Steve at all costs. The actress never once overplays it, allowing us to develop a sincere rooting interest in what happens to the character. Sebastian Stan matches her beat-for-beat with a very different kind of role. He makes Steve unhinged, yet in a way that feels credible. Instead of a generic villain, the movie gives us one with more than a semblance of humanity – a fact that serves to make him even scarier.

Director Mimi Cave finds the right tone for the picture. Instead of making a grungy-looking horror flick like Saw, she shoots in often attractive interior locations and injects many scenes with an undertone of pitch black humor, just to help the admittedly gruesome events go down a little easier. You may remember the scene in American Psycho where Christian Bale (as Patrick Bates) cheerfully sings along to “Hip to Be Square” by Huey Lewis and the News as he prepares to slaughter a guy with an ax. Fresh is often played at that kind of slightly-elevated level. There's even a similar scene where Steve does something horrific while bopping to an old Peter Cetera song.

The story builds to a climax that made me do something I've rarely ever done during a horror movie – I involuntarily put my hand over my mouth and gasped. When Noa finally makes her move, it's quite a sight to see. Fresh earns its ultra-intense finale. With a carefully constructed plot and impeccable lead performances, this is a top-tier horror movie from start to finish. Your chills will get chills.

out of four

Fresh is rated R for strong and disturbing violent content, some bloody images, language throughout, some sexual content and brief graphic nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 56 minutes.