By Bill Goodykoontz
Perhaps you have a nightmare vacation story, but there’s no way it tops the one in “The Rental.”
At least you’d hope not. It’s a scarily efficient little horror movie, directed by Dave Franco in his feature debut, who proves knowledgeable about his subject. Really knowledgeable, evidently, because he and co-writer Joe Swanberg dip into just about every trope of the genre by the end of the 88-minute running time.
To detail those examples would spoil the movie, but Franco has seen “The Shining,” “Paranormal Activity” and “Halloween” a time or two, reference points that are hard to beat. And while it’s not the most innovative film ever made, “The Rental” is still best enjoyed when you don’t know what’s coming.
What to expect in Dave Franco's 'The Rental'
That said, as we strain to find any kind of connection to our horror-filled present while the COVID-19 pandemic continues apace, this isn’t a particularly deep movie, and to its credit it doesn’t try to be. Franco builds up a nice sense of dread, throws in some uncomfortable human conflict, stirs it up and lets it all explode.
Also there’s a dog. Of course there is.
Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Mina (Sheila Vand) are partners in a tech startup; they want to celebrate some good work news by renting a fabulous place on the Oregon coast. They bring along their partners, Charlie’s girlfriend Michelle (Alison Brie, married to Franco in real life), and Mina’s boyfriend Josh (Jeremy Allen White) — a sweet guy who is also the successful Charlie’s ne’er-do-well younger brother.
Mina arrives ticked off because when she tried to book the place she was turned down, when an hour later Charlie was successful. Was it because her last name is Mohammadi? When they get to the house, the caretaker (Toby Huss, one of the great “oh that guy” character actors) doesn’t exactly dispel the possibility.
They settle into the place after a nice walk on the beach. Everyone but Michelle does ecstasy (it’s a romantic callback drug for Charlie and Michelle, having to do with how they met). Michelle goes to bed, Josh passes out, Charlie and Mina turn on the hot tub and an avalanche of mistakes and ugly secrets begin. Meanwhile has anyone seen the dog?
Plus, there’s this: Is someone watching them?
I mean, what do you think? It is a horror movie. But before Franco gets to that, he’s got some serious angst for his characters to deal with, offering some actual non-bloody drama, which he’ll get to soon enough.
Where the movie goes right — and wrong
Happily all of the performances are outstanding, each actor making something meaningful of what could have been stock characters. For instance, Stevens makes Charlie obnoxious enough you wonder whether he’s worth rooting for, but you still kind of do; when Brie’s Michelle finally gets high, she’s great.
Vand and White navigate trickier waters as the mismatched couple, and they’re both good. Her Mina is brilliant and while Josh is far from it; both actors pull off the dicey chemistry. Their relationship will hit some unexpected obstacles, and not just the horror movie kind.
Those just exacerbate the trouble.
As ever, horror movies are notoriously difficult to end in a satisfying way. There are some out-of-the-blue aspects to the conclusion of “The Rental” that take away from its impact.
Right up until the final frames of the last scene, that is, when Franco turns a storytelling shortcut into something close to a strength. Don’t turn it off early, in other words.
Though by that point you won’t want to anyway.