Horror movies might be on the opposite end of the emotional spectrum from comedies, but audiences constantly laugh during even some of the scariest of films. It could be that our bodies involuntarily chuckle in hopes of breaking ourselves out of anxiety, or it could be that a film's attempts to frighten us are so unsuccessful that we can't help but laugh at them. Actor Dave Franco has made us laugh with a number of performances, ranging from 21 Jump Street to Neighbors to The Disaster Artist, so it would likely come as a surprise that his directorial debut was a straightforward horror film. Whatever preconceived notions you might have about the film, The Rental is an anxiety-riddled experience of both emotional unease and traditional terrors.
In hopes of giving themselves an exciting weekend before their workload gets intense, coworkers Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Mina (Sheila Vand) score a rental house overlooking the beach for the weekend, bringing with them Charlie's wife Michelle (Alison Brie) and Mina's boyfriend Josh (Jeremy Allen White), who also happens to be Charlie's brother. While it's clear they all have chemistry together, Josh and Michelle have their doubts about their partners' commitment to them, while Charlie and Mina make it clear they're nothing more than coworkers. Adding to everyone's unease is the strange behavior of the owner they're renting the home from and the discovery of cameras throughout the house, with all of these factors culminating in both figurative and literal terror.
No matter what you expect from Franco's directing or writing skills (having co-written the script with Joe Swanberg), it's clear early on that he won't be offering even a glimmer of the comedic sensibilities that earned him a following. The Rental isn't exactly a dreadful affair, as much of the first act is spent merely witnessing the various charming relationships develop, but there's absolutely no winking at the camera nor are there overt jokes, with any remotely humorous moments merely being jokes shared between the characters.
Much like how Jordan Peele, known for his sketch comedy, came out of the gate with the immensely effective horror effort Get Out, demonstrating that he had to have spent years honing in on a precise vision of the horror film he wanted to make, Franco makes it quite clear that he isn't merely dabbling with the genre and has a respect for it and mastery over it. His choice of shooting the film in the Pacific Northwest adds a palpable tension to the atmosphere, as fog subtly creeps into sequences and becomes dangerously dense, much like the characters' sense of paranoia and inadequacy.
Before any of the traditional scares kick in, Franco plants the seeds of betrayal between the characters early on while never being obvious about anyone's intentions. Every glance or physical contact can easily be written off as platonic interactions between friends or coworkers, though he leaves things up to the viewers to interpret those moments accordingly, leaving the potential for more nefarious interpretations to be drawn. These sequences will surely be more indicative of the audience's feelings about trust more than they serve as an opportunity to say anything definitive about these characters. This interpersonal anxiety and terror are so effective that it almost comes as a disappointment when the more overt horrors begin to unfold.
Horror fans who are more interested in earning some escapism with the film will be more satiated by the back half of the picture, as it leans more into plot points previously seen in traditional slashers like The Burning, I Know What You Did Last Summer, or The Strangers. The staging of these sequences is compelling and Franco does have an engaging eye in that regard, though many of these moments seem to be a credit to the location of the house in which the events unfold more than what could have been accomplished under different conditions. Despite these being relatively effective sequences, there's nothing entirely unexpected about the film's finale or its reveals, though they're also far from disappointing.
What The Rental makes quite clear is that, despite comedies being the genre audiences most associate Franco with, there are many more layers to his career and will likely change his trajectory going forward. Making this debut so surprising is how much Franco manages to unsettle the audience in the first act without ever having to hint at a traditionally nefarious presence, instead letting the real-world drama ignite discomfort in the audience. The only drawback to the experience is we weren't allowed to fully immerse in that emotional anxiety before the film descended into a more expected thriller. In addition to the strengths of the narrative itself and his directorial eye, Franco also clearly knows how to surround himself with the right collaborators to pull off an ambitious endeavor, as the stars are putting in as much of the work on the project as the filmmaker, making for a promising leap into uncharted territory.
Rating: 4 out of 5
The Rental lands in select drive-ins, theaters, and on VOD on July 24th.