The Rental is the second ominous beach house themed horror movie in as many weeks and, although it’s slighter fare than Shudder’s subversive shocker The Beach House, Dave Franco’s directorial debut boasts its own brand of intensity and, considering its somewhat unimaginative premise, is much less predictable than expected. Anyone familiar with the younger Franco brother as an actor might be surprised to learn he’s got quite a sure hand when it comes to orchestrating scares, particularly while characters rely on modern conveniences like smartphone flashlights.
The setup is relatively simple; a group of mid-thirties hipster types, led by Dan Stevens’ Charlie, descend upon a seaside AirBnb for a weekend of mild debauchery (Ecstasy tablets are brought along for the ride) to celebrate a major break in the joint work project he and Mina (Sheila Vand) have been toiling away at for months. Charlie’s wife, Michelle (Alison Brie, Franco’s real-life wife) is sweetly trusting of his close relationship with this beautiful other woman but Charlie’s brother, Josh (Jeremy Allen White), who’s currently dating Mina, is more wary.
There’s definitely sexual tension between Charlie and Mina but Franco, who co-wrote the script with Joe Swanberg and Mike Demski, smartly doesn’t make their will-they-won’t-they the main focus of the story. Never mind that the gruff Taylor (Toby Huss), who organized the rental, is clearly a jerk who, when caught out in a moment of blatant racism, doesn’t deny or explain it away, instead leaving it to sit and stew in the moment. He’s not threatening per se, but Taylor isn’t the nicest host either. The tension at the heart of The Rental, then, comes from whether it’s going to be an inside or outside force that inevitably tears the foursome apart.
The film is impeccably cast, with all four — well, really, five — actors bringing their A game in a big way (adorable Frenchie Chunk is a standout, too, naturally). Brie shines, in particular, in a more dramatically challenging role than she’s been gifted thus far. Michelle is given plenty to do and she’s arguably the audience surrogate, too, providing the very loud voice of reason when the other three start behaving irrationally. The Rental‘s four central characters are smart people, and Franco and his co-writers side-step the much-maligned horror trope of having them do stupid things just to power the narrative. For the most part, they act logically.
Stevens does great work as a slimy white guy who’s used to getting his own way and, between this and Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, he’s having a helluva couple months. White is believably insecure as his screw-up brother, and Vand is reliably luminous as the conflicted Mina. Their interactions are charged with shared history, and there’s no clunky expository dialogue to drag their conversations down. The roles feel lived in, as though Franco just happened to rock up at the right moment, camera in hand, to watch all the madness unfold.
The location of the house (in Oregon, though it looks like California) is beautiful and there are no massive red flags, so the group’s decision to stay on even after one especially frightening discovery (you’ll be checking every shower head you come across after this film, trust me) makes a certain amount of sense. The situation escalates and becomes more convoluted, but it’s based more on interpersonal issues between the foursome rather than a masked killer chasing them down dark hallways. They are being watched and secrets will be exposed, but Franco doesn’t hammer the point to death (he saves that for a victim or two).
In fact, a moment with a secret door is played for laughs, with one character remarking that he was hoping the control room would be behind it, as we’ve seen in so many movies before. Franco subverts expectations by not giving the game away too early (there might actually be those who believe he waits too long to reveal what’s actually going on) and by wrong-footing us with typically staid genre cliches. Although the premise of The Rental is somewhat derivative, how it plays out isn’t. The director cameo, too, which isn’t credited on IMDb or in the film’s credits, feels like a cheeky nod to bucking conventions (or maybe it’s not really him, but I’m pretty sure it is).
As an introduction to Franco, the filmmaker, this is an impressive piece of work. His decision not to star in it should be heralded, because it keeps the focus solely on the story. Franco displays a steady hand when it comes to capturing moments both quietly shocking and outright frightening, with more than a few tricks up his sleeve to keep the tension elevated. There are no jump scares exactly, but plenty of incidents qualify as stomach-dropping. DOP Christian Sprenger bathes the proceedings in a warm glow, but the film feels necessarily chilly. A great deal of care has clearly been taken to make what could’ve been a flat story pop onscreen.
Much of the credit goes to Franco’s actors, who sell the film in its weaker moments, but the first time writer-director should be commended for everything he’s accomplished here, even on a relatively smaller scale. The Rental recalls Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation in tone, but its denouement isn’t quite as satisfyingly strange. Franco has a producer credit here too, so The Rental is evidently a passion project for him. That enthusiasm shines through in every element, right down to the creepy footage laid over the closing credits. With any luck, Franco’s next foray behind the camera will be even more successful, with the confidence he’s earned from this experience.
Catch The Rental in theaters and On Demand from July 24, 2020
WICKED RATING: 7/10
Director(s): Dave Franco
Writer(s): Dave Franco, Joe Swanberg, Mike Demski
Stars: Dan Stevens, Sheila Vand, Alison Brie, Jeremy Allen White, Toby Huss
Release date: July 24, 2020 (On Demand, theaters, and select drive-ins)
Studio/Production Company: IFC Films
Run Time: 88 minutes