3 out of 5 stars

Dave Franco is best-known as the younger brother of actor James Franco, whom he co-starred with in The Disaster Artist (2017). But now he’s making his directorial debut with The Rental, a horror film he also co-wrote that stars his wife Alison Brie (Horse Girl). Released at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic’s first wave, it has the distinction of being the first movie to reach No.1 at the US box office and video-on-demand (VOD) chart simultaneously.

The Rental is something of an update to Psycho (1960), only less masterfully made, with two couples heading to the coast for a weekend getaway: Charlie (Dan Stevens) and his wife Michelle (Alison Brie), and Charlie’s brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White) and his girlfriend Mina (Sheila Vand). They arrive at the luxurious seaside house and start settling in, but are unnerved by the property’s caretaker, Taylor (Toby Huss), after he makes a few casually racist remarks toward Mina, who is of Middle Eastern descent. To say more would spoil things, but suffice to say their stay doesn’t go well…

The interesting thing about The Rental is how it’s primarily a relationship drama for the first hour, which is a mixed blessing. The intention is to give the characters depth and prevent them becoming one-dimensional victims, so you care about their plight once the screws are tightened. The problem is that Franco and Joe Swanberg’s screenplay isn’t a strong enough character study to make this part of the film absorbing to watch. They wisely cast good actors in all the roles (Stevens and Brie do a particularly fine job elevating the material), but earlier scenes aren’t as compelling as they needed to be.

Fortunately, once a crucial development happens between serial cheater Charlie and his brother’s girlfriend Mina (no prizes for guessing), The Rental becomes more engrossing and goes down an unexpected path involving voyeurism and familial secrets. This definitely helps inject interest back into events after a shaky start. And while things end up being a fairly conventional slasher, enough’s been done to make you care more about everything than if the bloodshed started happening sooner.

While it doesn’t hit all of it marks, Dave Franco manages to craft an entertaining horror movie that sidesteps a few genre expectations—including an unpredictable order of kills. There are a few good misdirects and the last act is highly enjoyable because of the slow-burn approach leading up to it. I only wish the characters had been stronger and more entertaining to watch early on. They’re fine for the purposes of a generic slasher, but The Rental wants to create a deeper connection to them which the script isn’t entirely successful with. That said, simply knowing to stick with it will help if you start feeling restless in the first half-hour.

The Rental probably won’t satisfy slasher fans who demand imaginative kills and gore, as most of the violence is artfully presented or not seen on camera. This stylistic choice works well and doesn’t ruin the movie (which isn’t designed to be a bloodbath), but it might have been slightly more entertaining if the kills were less tethered to realism and things got a little crazier to contrast the first half of the movie.

Talk of a sequel is already swirling around, which would be welcome, but considering so much of The Rental’s strength came from not quite knowing what’s happening and who’s behind it, it’s certainly a risky one in terms of making the concept stay fresh. And it does ultimately boil down to Psycho with a rented house instead of a motel room, which isn’t the most imaginative of ideas. Indeed, the killer probably couldn’t believe their luck when a sex scandal came to light, as their day is usually more routine.

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USA | 2020 | 88 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Dave Franco.
writers: Dave Franco & Joe Swanberg (story by Dave Franco, Joe Swanberg & Mike Demski).
starring: Dan Stevens, Alison Brie, Sheila Vand, Jeremy Allen White & Toby Huss.