The Rental (2020)

Dan Stevens as “Charlie,” Sheila Vand as “Mina,” and Jeremy Allen White as “Josh” in Dave Franco’s THE RENTAL. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

Actor Dave Franco is known for his comedies including “Neighbors” and “The Disaster Artist,” and then there’s that great cameo in “If Beale Street Could Talk.” In a move similar to Romola Garai (“Amulet”), Franco steps outside his wheelhouse to jump behind the camera for the first-rate thriller “The Rental.”

Two couples sharing an Airbnb weekend getaway discover hidden cameras in the beautiful oceanside home. Paranoia sets in and tensions rise as the film heads into dark territory, fast.

Recently I reviewed the horror film “Amulet” from actor-turned-director Romola Garai who hit it out of the ballpark with the creepy supernatural thriller. Primarily known for roles in sweeping dramas (“Atonement,” “Suffragette”), the English actress switched gears for her directorial debut, a move reminiscent of Jordan Peele who segued from comedy to horror for his directorial debut “Get Out.” Now we have Dave Franco making the substantial jump resulting in a solid entry in the stalker-horror genre and possibly the start of a franchise.

“The Rental” was cowritten by Joe Swanberg, whose contribution to the “V/H/S” horror anthology, “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily,” is one of the best found-footage segments in Brad Miska’s 2012 film. Together with Franco, the duo plays on the fear of renting an Airbnb without knowing anything about who stayed there in the past or the owners of the property.

Think about it. You’re renting a home that could include hidden surveillance cameras or maybe the owners are a bit wacky, who knows? At any given moment your vacation could turn into an Eli Roth film. And now there’s another thing to worry about, COVID-19. I’m not sure how the pandemic has affected Airbnb rentals, but I remember reading a recent article about homeowners trying to sell off their rental homes in light of the pandemic.

Franco is working with a good cast. First, there’s Dan Stevens as Charlie, whose appearance in “Downton Abbey” propelled him into leading man material, and wonderful actress Sheila Vand as Mina, who shot into the spotlight as the star of Ana Lily Amirpour’s Iranian vampire western “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” together they play partners of a tech start-up. Alison Brie from “GLOW” plays Charlie’s wife Michelle while Jeremy Allen White from “Shameless” plays Charlie’s hot-headed brother and Mina’s boyfriend Josh who works as a Lyft driver.

If you remove the horror element from Franco’s film, you’re still left with a good psychological drama thanks to the obvious sexual tension between Charlie and Mina–it feels like the two of them are on vacation while Michelle and Josh are added baggage. But Franco and Swanberg work against horror tropes by delivering good character development and no cheap jump scares (we’ll get to that later). We learn that Michelle is clearly the level-headed one in the bunch and that Josh, despite his convict background, is actually a loving person who can’t keep his emotions in check. These are well developed characters for an 89-minute genre film.

The tension begins before the two couples depart for the beautiful rental on the Oregon coast. Mina tried to book the home but got no reply while Charlie heard back instantly from the property manager Taylor (Toby Huss). She alludes it’s because her last name is Mohammadi which paints Taylor as a racist. Also, the rules state no pets but that doesn’t stop Josh from bringing along Reggie, his French bulldog.

The film churns along in simmer mode as the tensions grow. First, Taylor makes off-color remarks and lets himself inside the property when everyone is out, and second, drugs and booze don’t mix–especially Molly when an opportunity arises that leads Charlie and Mina to act on impulse.

Hidden cameras are discovered in two of the home’s showerheads, but Charlie and Mina decide not to tell their significant others in case footage exists of their trysts. The final chapter goes full-fledged horror as the thriller takes on a “Halloween” vibe as a mysterious shape lurks in the background.

The spectacular home located in Bandon, Oregon is part of the film’s witchery. It’s isolated and nestled atop a cliff begging someone to take a nosedive off the top. Franco avoids cheap jump scares, giving the viewer the real deal with a gripping climax making “The Rental” a must-see film for anyone who loves a good scare. I’ll bet you think twice before renting that next Airbnb.

(3 ½ stars)

In theaters and available on Demand on most streaming sites.

Joe Friar is a member of the Critics Choice Association (Los Angeles) and the Houston Film Critics Society. A lifelong fan of cinema, he co-founded the Victoria Film Society, Frels Fright Fest, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic. 

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Joe Friar is a member of the Critics Choice Association (Los Angeles) and the Houston Film Critics Society. A lifelong fan of cinema, he co-founded the Victoria Film Society, Frels Fright Fest, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.

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