Two horror movies arrive to watch this week, and both of them feel as though they’re aiming for something grander than what the final product actually delivers. Both are by actors turned filmmakers, and both owe a lot to the genre films that came before them, genre films that ultimately do better what these films are trying to do.
Making his directorial debut, Dave Franco (James’s little brother) contributes The Rental, about a couple of couples who escape to an oceanfront mansion for a weekend getaway only to get caught up in their own secrets and much more. (The other is Amulet, reviewed here). Starring Allison Brie (who is also Franco’s wife), Dan Stevens (long since shed of his “Downton Abbey” stiff upper lip), Jeremy Allen White (“Shameless”) and Sheila Vand (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night), The Rental is a concentrated story that relies on the characters’ messy relationships and its single setting to create tension and scares, an effort in which it mostly succeeds.
Charlie (Stevens) and Mina (Vand) work together at a creative agency, and as the film opens, they’re selecting a place for them and their significant others to jet off to for the weekend; Charlie is married to Michelle (Brie) and Mina is dating Charlie’s brother, Josh (White). There’s a very Get Out vibe to the film’s first act, setting up seemingly normal circumstances for a seemingly normal set of friends. For better or worse, these four have a solid rapport built on family connections and shared worldview. There’s an eye-roll of an exchange between the brothers (literally just using the word “bro” over and over again) that’s supposed to clue us into how chill, how tight this foursome is. With a foreign name (of unspecified background), Mina sparks a bit of a confrontation with Taylor (Toby Huss), the home’s caretaker, when she challenges him on why her rental request was rejected only to have Charlie’s accepted an hour later. It is a bit odd, but Franco (and co-writer Joe Swanberg) don’t really commit to this plot line beyond Mina’s attention to it. More, it’s there to set up Taylor as a creepy presence in the foursome’s weekend plans as he declines to take Mina’s bait yet keeps an oddly observant eye on his houseguests.
The rest of their weekend is an exercise in all-too-convenient set-ups to get to the scares Franco has in store. On the first night, Michelle wants to be in good shape for the next day’s hike so she goes to bed early while the other three drop Molly and either pass out early or find themselves in other compromising circumstances. The next morning, Michelle and Josh are ready to go for that hike, but lo and behold, Charlie, Mina and their massive hangovers stay behind. Josh asks them to keep an eye on Reggie, his beloved dog he surreptitiously brought along to the decidedly “no pets” rental property, and they promise to (all those set ups, coming at ya hard and fast…). When Mina discovers a hidden camera in one of the bathroom’s showerheads (not a spoiler), she realizes the antics of the night before might have been preserved for posterity and the secrets kept between various members of this little group start to pile up.
If The Rental had committed to its psychological thriller set-up, there’s certainly plenty there to build a perfectly creepy exploration of the privacy implications in a modern shared economy. To be sure, if and when we all head back to AirBnBs for our next vacation, you’ll be casing the joint for hidden cameras after seeing this one (I know I will be). But when Franco and Swanberg try to ratchet up the scares even further by adding an unnamed attacker to the mix (there’s another eye-roll of a line from Taylor that I’ll spare you here but you’ll know it when you hear it), the revelation feels like more of a left turn in the plot than an unexpected (and welcome) twist in this foursome’s unfortunate weekend. If what’s revealed was the intention all along, there’s a different film to be made with this very demented protagonist at its center.
Franco has cast the film quite well; the four main actors play their respective roles admirably. Brie is likable enough as a doting, cool-girl wife who soon wisens up; White leans into his hot-tempered, younger-brother persona; and Vand creates a “woke” Mina who’s still complicated and troubled. Stevens continues to impress, an actor seemingly able to jump into any role in any genre and fully embrace it. As things escalate around him, Charlie’s responds to every troubling development with more and more intensity, and Stevens appears to be having a field day with it. In the end, The Rental is the kind of polished, non-threatening horror that, despite a few moments that miss the mark, makes for a great weekend watch. Though it never quite reaches its full potential, it’s entertaining enough with an engaging cast and a few genuinely creepy moments.