The horror genre has evolved in two distinct ways. The first is the advent of low-budget, high-brow horror films. These films are crafted with meticulous precision. Their subtleties give way to sharp moments of intense horror, and social commentary woven throughout the writing makes those films as important as they are terrifying. Think of Get Out, Midsommar, and Ready Or Not. These films overturn the notions of what a horror film is and what it can accomplish. The second evolution in the horror genre is of the low-budget horror film that doesn’t necessarily aim for strong social heft but is still geared towards arthouse artistry. It can make its budget back with a solid opening weekend at the traditional box office. The Rental is more of the latter, which in its case is just enough.
Marking Dave Franco’s directorial debut, The Rental is a sleek horror film that benefits from a set of excellent performances, a couple of well-executed plot twists, and characters who stumble from one unfortunate situation to the next in a way that makes sense. The plot is relatively simple: four friends rent a vacation house for the weekend and things go pretty downhill from there. The simplicity of the plot is arguably one of the film’s greater strengths – the screenplay by Franco and Joe Swanberg moves along economically, ticking down the moments until the twist inevitably arrives. Even then, the film smartly avoids revealing too much information about what is happening. The end credits sequence in particular is a pitch perfect ending for the horror caper.
The cast is excellent, making good use of their screen time to lift up characters whose backgrounds were too thinly established for their inevitable conflicts to feel as earned or weighted as the script intended. Dan Stevens, Sheila Vand, Alison Brie, and Jeremy Allen White respond effectively to the scenarios crafted around them. They prove themselves entirely capable of creating dynamic chemistry on screen even when the script doesn’t provide it. Brie in particular has an excellent moment that pops off of screen. (You’ll know it when you see it!)
The script’s light characterizations are unfortunate but follow in its tendency to be a bit heavy-handed when it comes to filling in those characterizations. There’s an underlying thread about racism that the film is clever enough to introduce, especially considering the genre’s history of treating characters of colour, but is not smart enough to deal with consistently. It therefore comes across as blunt and heavy-handed, which is unfortunate because the ingredients for making racism more integral to the story and elevating the film were all right there.
Franco is assured in his directorial debut and manages to sneak in a couple of excellent shots. One quick shot of gore, however, feels particularly gratuitous in light of the events that occurred right before it. The score is a bit heavy-handed at times, as if it wants the audience to remember that they are, in fact, within the thralls of a horror film. The cinematography is assured but its scope is at times limited, perhaps by the film’s budget. While I would not recommend The Rental for more than a matinee, it makes for an excellent quarantine stream.