Some of the best horror movies are like home invasions, with the horror as the invader and some other genre playing the part of the home. Think you’re watching the gentle story of a lonely widower holding fake auditions to find a new wife? Think again, because out come the needles and piano wire. Horror is definitely an interruption in The Rental, the first feature written and directed by Dave Franco. (Yes, that Dave Franco.) Though there are a few telltale signs of something menacing afoot—an ominously locked door, a couple voyeuristic POV shots of the Jason Voorhees variety—much of the first half of the film plays like a straight drama, establishing the conflicts simmering between two couples on a weekend getaway. This setup is so credible, in fact, that it’s doubly disappointing when the thriller elements do finally materialize and then promptly fail to thrill; it’s as if someone snatched the remote and changed the channel to a half-assed slasher starring the same characters.
If Jaws made audiences afraid to go to the beach, The Rental seems designed to ruin a different source of summer fun: the group vacation. The eponymous property is a spacious house overlooking the ocean. It’s the perfect spot for a couple days of partying, agree partners Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Mina (A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night’s Sheila Vand), who ogle the listing, talking each other into paying the high price to book. It should be clarified that Charlie and Mina are professional partners, not romantic ones—they run a startup, though the movie is amusingly disinterested in the details of their business. Franco counts on us confusing the two for lovers; their chemistry is the first issue of many bubbling beneath the film’s surface. Mina is actually dating Charlie’s brother, Josh (Jeremy Allen White), a sweet but quick-tempered ex-frat boy whose career as a Lyft driver earns him lots of condescension from his older, more successful sibling. Charlie, meanwhile, is married to Michelle (Alison Brie, Franco’s own spouse), who doesn’t feel threatened by her husband’s close relationship to his coworker, though maybe she should be.
Franco co-wrote The Rental with mumblecore pioneer Joe Swanberg, and for a while, it works well as a relationship study in the vein of the latter’s Drinking Buddies, complete with a focus on inconvenient attraction among thirtysomethings. On top of the charged intimacy of the group dynamic, the film piles on tensions of race and class. When the four reach the house, there’s a prickly exchange between the owner’s brother (character actor Toby Huss) and Mina, whose application was denied, presumably because of her Middle Eastern last name. She’s guilty of her own assumptions: “You own this place?” she incredulously asks, the man’s accent and working-class vibe not fitting her mental image of someone with money. Franco also gets some knowing laughs from how vacation priorities can shift out of sync; as in Midsommar, several scenes are devoted to the divisive question of when to do the drugs. (Within a strong cast, Brie most successfully navigates the transition from mundane irritations like having to get high alone to life-altering danger.)
This is mostly prelude, however. Eventually, The Rental plummets into a worst-case scenario of predatory surveillance, one that intersects with the secrets destructively kept among the characters. But after all the care put into developing these relationships, the scares almost feel like an afterthought, as though the movie remembered last minute what genre it was supposed to be occupying and hastily improvised a violent climax. As a filmmaker, Franco thankfully possesses none of the pompous overreach of his older brother; The Rental runs a brisk, unpretentious 88 minutes, and is cleanly, sleekly directed. But there’s an indifference to what passes for its set pieces: Beyond one effectively jarring shot of someone racing full speed at a crashed car, the horror is staged as perfunctorily as it’s introduced. Curiously, the life-and-death material turns out to be much less suspenseful than the possibility of infidelity that looms over the first half’s social misadventure.
To be fair, The Rental would probably be a little creepier any other summer, when more viewers might be planning trips of their own—though seeing friends in close contact, touching the surfaces of another person’s home, does inspire some accidental pinpricks of anxiety, the same way crowded beaches presently look scary even without a shark prowling their waters. Much more so than the year’s other Airbnb horror movie, the wan Kevin Bacon chiller You Should Have Left, The Rental at least attempts to exploit the unsettling implications of our new travel normal—to touch upon the discomfort renters arguably should feel occupying a home that isn’t their own. How much can a few star ratings really tell you about the people opening their doors? And isn’t there something a little unnerving about their freedom to come and go as they please, their access to you just the turn of a key away? Franco grazes these fears, but his movie still feels like an exquisite corpse of genre miscalculation, one that develops no meaningful relationship between the story it seems to be telling and the harsh but rather arbitrary way it’s resolved. In other words, don’t trust the listing: This is half a horror movie at best, and that’s not its better half.