Great Ending Helps Horror Exercise ‘The Rental’ Land a Little Harder

by Nick Spacek on July 23, 2020

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Minor Rock Fist Up]

Director Dave Franco‘s feature debut The Rental (out Friday July 24 in select theaters and VOD) is – following the early July release of Jeff Brown’s The Beach House – the second film this month to lean into the growing sub-genre of “vacation horror,” wherein a trip to a secluded, seemingly restful location turns into a nightmare. While not a new thing, with the likes of Tourist Trap and The Hills Have Eyes ranking among the most notable of the genre, most of the films within the genre see the protagonists being waylaid before reaching their intended destination.

The current crop of films are more akin to ’80s summer camp slashers from Friday the 13th to Sleepaway Camp to The Burning, et al, in that the terror begins with ominous portents on the trip out, but with the real terror beginning once everyone’s begun to unpack and settle in. However, whereas The Beach House saw the couples’ seaside retreat beset by mysterious forces from beyond, the characters in The Rental are under assault from very human forces from without and within.

“Two couples on an oceanside getaway grow suspicious that the host of their seemingly perfect rental house may be spying on them. Before long, what should have been a celebratory weekend trip turns into something far more sinister, as well-kept secrets are exposed and the four old friends come to see each other in a whole new light.”

The Rental also falls under a category I like to refer to as “rich people doing stupid things that get them killed.” It’s not exclusive to horror, and it frequently irritates the living shit out of me. While I appreciate bad decisions resulting in the death of people with more money than brains, an unfortunate side effect is that these bad decisions are usually the only metrics by which we can judge the characters in any given film of this type.

So it goes for the characters in the script by Franco and Joe Swanberg, wherein they bring a dog to a “no pets allowed” location, do drugs, and then, well, you can probably guess where the “exposed secrets” angle is headed\. As is the usual idea for a film of this sort, we’re given a small coterie of characters in a remote and isolated location, meaning the film is set primarily in the rental house, with only the two couples and the uncomfortable caretaker, Taylor (Toby Huss). This keeps the budget way, way down, but means that the interaction between everyone is key to the film’s success. Regardless of what the overall tenor of the film may be, any small cast, single location picture ultimately becomes a psychological drama in some way.

The relationships between the various characters are well-intertwined. Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Mina (Sheila Band) are business partners, with Mina dating Charlie’s brother, Josh (Jeremy Allen White). The interconnected aspects of these three are well-defined, right from the start. We see Charlie and Mina selecting a vacation rental, and assume that they’re the couple, given their closeness with one another. It’s only when Josh shows up that we realize that he is the one dating Mina, immediately leading to raised eyebrows and murmurs of “What the heck is going on here?”

It’s great, except for the fact that Charlie’s significant other, Michelle (Alison Brie), is given no real character development. There’s a conversation between her and Josh where there are hints of the fact that they both see themselves as being more in the realm of emotional support animals for their respective partners, serving more to boost them up, rather than equals. Past that, however, Michelle is the wobbly fourth wheel. Charlie’s got a certain take-charge quality about him, Mina is vocal about how she is perceived, and Josh feels that he’s in his brother’s shadow. These might be shallow means by which to define these folks, but it certainly beats the veneer of Michelle.

The end result is The Rental being a film that, for the majority of the time we spend with these characters, is fine. The acting’s competent, the score manages to up the tension fairly effectively, and the game of waiting to see whose secrets and failures will be discovered and how is entertaining enough. A plot swerve will result in a quizzically tilted head, and you’ll begin to wonder just what direction Franco’s film is going to take, after yet another “people doing dumb, impulsive shit” scene suddenly changes the stakes.

Strangely, once the stakes have been raised and various aspects of the film have been reveled to be red herrings, The Rental becomes frighteningly pedestrian. At one point, I was actively disparaging the film and wondering just how these actors – several of whom have had recent genre roles in very noteworthy films like The Guest and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night – were convinced to appear in what was rapidly becoming a better-shot version of innumerable straight-to-VOD hack-and-stab horror movies. I eye-rolled for the better part of 15 minutes and I was glad when I thought everything was over. Turns out I was wrong.

The last five minutes changed everything. I ended up jaw agape, fully in love with The Rental. The TL;DR of it all is “It’s fine. I hate it. I love it.” Your mileage may vary, but the ending manages to avoid any sense of “What a twist!” manipulation, and instead returns you to the sense of dread you had upon the couples’ initial arrival at the titular rental. Bravo.

Nick is a self-described “rock star journalist,” which is strange, considering he’s married with two kids and three cats. This is just further proof that you can’t trust anyone online. In addition to his work for Scene-Stealers, Nick can be found bitching about music elsewhere on the Internet at his blog, Rock Star Journalist, and as Music Editor for The Pitch.

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