While Dave Franco is more well known for his acting career and for being the often-upstaged younger brother of James Franco, he has also dabbled in film producing and writing. However, for the first time Franco has made the move to the director seat, co-writing, producing and directing a new horror film called “The Rental”. Focusing on a pair of brothers and their girlfriends who rent an ocean view home for a weekend only to discover hidden terrors within not only the home but each other, “The Rental” is a fine showing of Franco’s talent behind the camera that dares to put a sharp focus on some starkly human characters and the flaws that help separate them from the classic horror cliché archetypes. However, the film also delves into some pretty worn and cliché territory not always to its own benefit making it a good, but far from flawless debut for Franco as a filmmaker.
“The Rental” stars Dan Stevens and Jeremy Allen White as brothers Charlie and Josh while Franco’s real-life wife Alison Brie plays Charlie’s wife Michelle and Sheila Vand plays Mina, Josh’s girlfriend and Charlie’s business partner. The four decide to take a vacation and arrive at their selected rental home only to find the housekeeper Taylor, played by Toby Huss, to be passive aggressive and potentially racist against Mina. Taylor turns out to be the least of their problems however as hidden demons of the characters begin to surface after a drug and alcohol fueled night of debauchery and hidden cameras are discovered throughout the home as a mysterious stranger watches their every move. At first, I thought “The Rental” would use this premise to tackle some intriguing realities of our world, and in some cases I wasn’t disappointed. Franco and his cast create some well defined and very human individuals to fill this scenario. While we’re given reason to like all of them, eventually we discover their inner demons whether it’s drugs, a violent temper, or a tendency to cheat. These are, for the most part, good people that happen to contain tragic flaws and on some level “The Rental” serves as a downplayed character study of how four friends can turn on each other in the worst of times for seemingly no reason which isn’t a far-fetched concept especially for our world today.
Where I was disappointed though was with the more traditional horror elements worked into the film. The idea of a masked bad guy antagonist has been overdone in horror to the point where it’s gone beyond being a cliché. It’s practically a requirement that, when used, feels like a cop out and that’s kind of how it feels here. For a while it felt like Franco was going to provide an intriguing experience about the dangers of the rental property business and the constant surveillance of our personal lives that litters our culture either by our own hand or by powers beyond our control. It is genuinely creepy to think of renting a home only to find someone is spying on the tenants. But this concept is wasted when the final half hour turns it into a setup for a pretty generic masked-villain-hunts-down-the-victims scenario. It makes “The Rental” feel like Franco just ran out of ideas for how to end it and, potentially, turn it into a franchise. All of a sudden it’s not a movie about human flaws or secret recordings anymore. It’s a generic cat-and-mouse mind game between victims and killer that has been overdone throughout the genre. Granted it’s fun, pulse pounding and exciting, but it’s still the same old cliché that waters down what could have been a deeper slow-burn that challenges human nature rather than simply becoming about survival.
With that said though, “The Rental” does provide an engaging story and setup even with its clichés that, especially thanks to its short run time, kept me fully invested from start to finish. For all its flaws “The Rental” is well crafted with fun suspense and neat thrills that, while they don’t challenge conventions, bring out the best the genre has to offer in the modern day. I wish the writing was more inventive and that the deeper themes of the film were handled with more conviction, but it’s a good start for Franco showing that he can provide a well shot, well-acted piece of cinema that, even at it’s worst, can be compelling and entertaining. It has its fair share of nuance that helps sell the good elements, including it’s not-so-subtle commentary on human flaws and passive-aggressive racism, but isn’t above entertaining its audience with well executed if overly-familiar Hollywood horror flair. It’s a ice mix that doesn’t always blend perfectly but it does, indeed, blend.
“The Rental” is a good movie that showcases the budding talent of Franco as a writer and filmmaker. It’s deeper themes are relevant to modern day but also feel like they could be timeless as they examine the human flaws of some likable characters in a confined setting, in the process exploring how dark we as individuals can turn at the most uncomfortable of times. It’s eventually evolution to full-on slasher flick might seem jarring and uninventive, but the engaging and thrilling execution proves to be effective enough to give it a pass. Ultimately this is a well-made horror flick that probably could have been better but in lesser hands could have also been a huge waste of time. As it is I wouldn’t mind revisiting this film a few more times and seeing where Dave Franco wants to take the idea as a franchise. If this is what Franco is capable of, I genuinely can’t wait to see what he does next.