'The Rental' Review: Dave Franco's Directorial Debut Isn't Groundbreaking, But It's A Plenty Effective Horror Film

The Rental is a relationship drama that suddenly turns into a slasher movie. It probably shouldn't work, and yet, director Dave Franco finds a way to strike the right balance. As we grow more and more caught up in the drama surrounding two couples, the tension builds. We're waiting for the shoe to drop, and for some terrible mistake to trigger a catastrophe. And just when the sticky romantic situations involving the couples have built to a fever pitch, out comes a silent, masked killer wielding a bloody hammer.

But before all that happens, we first meet Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Mina (Sheila Vand). The two are sitting extremely close to one another, scrolling through an Airbnb-like home-rental site and deciding on a fancy-looking beachfront home. The body language of the pair, and the easy-going, flirtatious manner in which they chat has us thinking from the start that they're a couple. But no, we quickly learn. They're actually coworkers in relationships with other people.

Charlie is with the sweet, somewhat reserved Michelle (Alison Brie) while Mina happens to be dating Charlie's less-refined brother, Josh (Jeremy Allen White). This bait-and-switch is one of several ways Franco keeps the viewer off-guard. The Rental isn't the most sophisticated of thrillers, and it's cribbing from several titles that came before it – The Strangers feels like a huge influence here. But Franco, in his feature directorial debut, shows he has a firm grasp on letting his images sell us on something, and trusting his audience to connect the dots without excessive exposition.

Off to the rental the two couples go, and things almost immediately turn tense. The owner of the house, Taylor (Toby Huss, doing so much with so little), seems overly hostile, and Mina, who is Iranian, begins to suspect Taylor is judging her because of her race, and she's probably correct since Taylor isn't exactly being subtle. But soon Taylor is gone, and the couple is ready for a fun weekend getaway involving booze and recreational drugs. But as the night wears on, Michelle goes to bed early and Josh gets so wasted he passes out, leaving Charlie and Mina to carry on without them while dealing with their own sexual tension in the process.

Up until this point, The Rental doesn't announce itself as a horror movie. There are occasional, ominous voyeuristic shots that suggest the POV of some malevolent figure. And the confrontation with Taylor certainly puts a sour note in the air. But were it not for every piece of marketing associated with The Rental, one might be easily lulled into assuming this is an indie drama about awkward romance and relationships.

And that's when things start to get really weird. And creepy.

To say more would be a disservice to The Rental, which plays its cards very close to the chest (so close, in fact, that we don't even begin to get a full picture of what happened here until the credits start to roll). It wants to keep you guessing, and then it wants to give you the creeps. And on those two fronts, it's pretty successful. The horror that happens here is played without flair or flourish. There's a cold, detached approach that makes the impending brutality all the more brutal. The script, by Franco and Joe Swanberg, knows exactly which buttons to push.

The problem is that the relationship stuff actually works better than the horror elements. While Michelle and Josh are severely underwritten characters – we learn practically nothing about either of them – the uncomfortable, inevitable lust between Charlie and Mina is enticing. Stevens and Vand play off each other nicely, and there's genuine chemistry between them. Vand is particularly good at making her character sympathetic, while Stevens is equally skilled at making Charlie seem like a selfish prick.

The transition between the indie drama elements and the full-scale horror isn't the smoothest – the characters start acting very stupid for a few minutes. But once the movie finds the right grove, Franco is able to ratchet up the tension and generate harrowing moments that hint at the type of unrelenting bleakness that prevails in most modern horror. Because Mina seems to be the most sympathetic of the group, we immediately latch onto her in this second half of the film, and Vand's performance, going from dryly funny to full-scale panic, is fine-tuned to near-perfection.

As far as directorial debuts go, The Rental is a strong start for Franco, who proves here he can take not just one but two different tried-and-true genre formulas and rework them into something neat. More often than not, it seems like first-time filmmakers start off with horror as a launchpad, since there's some misconception that it's an "easy" genre to break into. After The Rental, here's hoping Franco doesn't abandon the genre and move to something else, because it's clear he has a real knack for it. And don't be surprised if you find yourself hesitant to ever check into an Airbnb again after you watch what happens here.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10