by Andrew Wyatt on Jul 23, 2020

It’s honestly remarkable that it took roughly a decade for enterprising screenwriters to start penning Airbnb horror films. Although it’s possible that a micro-budget feature or two with this high-concept premise slipped under the radar over the years, it’s only recently that higher-profile examples have emerged. Unfortunately, those efforts have been quite lacking. Last year, Richard Bates Jr.’s Tone Deaf turned the “vacation rental from hell” conceit into the stuff of toothless boomer-vs.-millennial satire, and just last month David Koepp’s You Should Have Left served up a similar scenario as a lifeless haunted-house tale.

Though there’s nothing especially revelatory about The Rental, the latest entry in this mini-subgenre, it has the distinction of being superior in every way to these earlier efforts. The assured directorial debut of actor Dave Franco – working from a script co-written with veteran indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg – The Rental is an impressively moody, slow-boil thriller wrapped around a brutal slasher flick. Granted, other than the already-expired trendiness of its premise, Franco’s feature doesn’t boast much in the way of originality. What it does have is sharp execution of genre fundamentals, a ridiculously overqualified cast, and the cunning to subtly echo successful elements from other films without stooping to outright mimicry.

The setup is indie-horror efficiency at its finest: Two couples from San Francisco rent a lavish vacation home on the Oregon coast for a weekend getaway, where it gradually becomes apparent that Something Sinister is going on, perhaps involving their rough-around-the-edges host. From the film’s opening shots, however, it’s apparent that The Rental is (at least initially) more absorbed with the lurid melodrama of intra-group tensions than with more visceral, paranoid thrills. When the viewer first encounters Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Mina (Sheila Vand), they are browsing rental properties online together, and the way they speak to and touch each other naturally leads one to believe that they are a couple. Then Charlie’s younger brother, Josh (Jeremy Allen White), appears, and it becomes clear that he and Mina are the couple, while she and Charlie are professional partners in some unspecified tech startup. That mistaken first impression lingers is the back of the mind, however. When he later discusses the upcoming double-date weekend with his girlfriend, Michelle (Alison Brie), Charlie insists a touch too emphatically that Mina is too good for his brother, a hot-tempered ex-convict who drives for a rideshare company.

The fault lines between the foursome thus established, they head up the coast to a sprawling oceanside property for a couple of nights of rest, relaxation, and recreational drug use. Purportedly the unused vacation home of a wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneur, the property is managed by the absent owner’s brother Taylor (Toby Huss), a crusty local who seems both a little too evasive and a little too prying. Mina’s hackles are already up about Taylor – she suspects that their first booking attempt was denied because of her Arabic surname – but Charlie is more concerned that their host will discover Josh's French bulldog, a violation of the rental’s no-pets rules. Once Taylor departs, however, the mood lightens a bit, and the two couples explore the house, stroll along the beach, and make a sumptuous dinner where the wine flows freely. When Mina eventually suggests breaking out the ecstasy, Michelle demurs, preferring to save her share until Saturday night. The other three partake, however, and a few hours later Michelle is sound asleep, Josh is black-out drunk, and Charlie and Mina are taking a shared dip in the outdoor hot tub. The adulterous outcome is as predictable as it is disheartening.

Up to this point, the film exhibits many of the traits seen in the filmography of mumblecore veteran Swanberg, who built his reputation on lo-fi portraiture of dysfunctional millennial relationships in features like LOL (2006), Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007), and Nights and Weekends (2008). Purely at the plot level, there is little indication that anything more menacing that character-based melodrama is afoot during the characters' first day at the rental property. Taylor acts vaguely peculiar, and Josh discovers a strange, key-coded door underneath the house. That’s about the extent of the feature’s blatant foreshadowing – until the following day, when an alarmed Mina discovers a tiny wireless camera in the bathroom’s shower head.

The novel twist to The Rental is that Franco take the story’s familiar indie formula – a group of thirtysomethings self-sabotage in dispiritingly banal fashion – and slathers it in an aura of stultifying doom. Regardless of what’s happening on screen, The Rental always feels like a horror film. Christian Sprenger’s cinematography makes liberal use of ominous wide shots, chilly purple-gray mist, and brownish nocturnal murk to infuse every scene with a powerful sense of foreboding. Meanwhile, the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans – who also composed the music for HBO’s excellent Stephen King miniseries The Outsider – scuttles and slithers along, insisting that something awful is going to happen, something that goes way beyond sibling resentment and garden-variety infidelity.

For these reasons, The Rental almost feels like a sly experiment on Franco’s part, an attempt to announce his debut feature’s genre almost entirely through style rather than substance. In this respect, one is obliged to shamefacedly concede to the film’s success, as it illustrates just how easily viewers can be put on edge by means of contemporary horror cinema’s now-familiar formal methods. Which isn’t to say that The Rental doesn’t ultimately deliver the slasher-flick goods. When the film finally explodes into bloody violence in its third act, it does so with a lean-and-mean cruelty that nods to early genre landmarks like Black Christmas (1974) and Halloween (1979), as well as more recent back-to-basics efforts such as The Strangers: Prey at Night (2018). Some of the film’s creepier design elements also echo Drive’s (2011) late-game shift into a quasi-slasher territory, an unexpected influence that Franco thankfully refrains from overemphasizing.

Still, The Rental’s most overt touchstones are sordid character dramas and psychosexual thrillers rather than grindhouse gorefests. One doesn’t have to squint too hard to detect the outline of Psycho (1961), but there are also distinct traces of Someone’s Watching Me! (1978), sex, lies, and videotape (1989), and Shallow Grave (1994), among others. That said, one of the pleasures of The Rental is its modesty. Franco and Swanberg don’t have ambitions for anything grander than a well-crafted 88-minute horror-thriller, and although its cinematic influences are often obvious, the feature is unfettered by any sense of art-horror pretension.

The closest that The Rental comes to overreach is in its epilogue, which presents an explanation for the film’s horrors that's not much of an explanation at all. The filmmakers use the feature's final moments to offer what they seem to regard as an unsettling commentary on How We Live Now, but it lands with a muffled thud. It’s a rare misstep in a feature that is otherwise sharply focused on the free-floating distrust that characterizes every interaction in the digital age – not to mention society’s still-lagging awareness of the total demolition of privacy. (In this, its closest thematic kin might be the underrated Unfriended franchise.) Unlike most thrillers about voyeurism, The Rental is not interested in the allure of watching but in the paranoia about being watched. The possibility that the film’s characters are being monitored and manipulated by a nefarious outside presence is simply a more heightened and debased expression of the everyday anxiety that eats away at their relationships. As science-fiction author Ted Chiang observed in his story “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling,” when everything is recorded, nothing is hidden – and, perhaps more troubling, nothing is forgiven or forgotten.

Rating: B-

The Rental is now available rent from major online platforms.