The title is as generic as they come — perhaps intended as subliminal advice for on-demand channel surfers? — but “The Rental” is a solid entry in the real estate horror genre and an impressively taut feature directing debut for actor Dave Franco. Relying far more on psychology than bloodletting, the movie nevertheless exudes a growing sense of dread that’s difficult to shake. It arrives this week on VOD.
The cast is choice, too. Dan Stevens, who has caromed from “Downton Abbey” to “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga,” is Charlie, a tech entrepreneur who has done very well for himself. He’s married to Michelle (Alison Brie, “Community,” “Mad Men”) but is business partners and best buddies with Mina (Sheila Vand), who’s dating Charlie’s hard-luck brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White). The tensions — between the brothers, between the two women, between the working couple — are there from the beginning but only gradually come out of the woodwork after Charlie rents a lavish lakefront Airbnb for a weekend getaway.
The caretaker (Toby Huss) is another loser brother of a successful (and unseen) homeowner, and he’s bitter enough to get the weekend off to a creepy start. What begins with only slightly forced bonhomie results in some regrettable moral lapses after a celebratory dose of Ecstasy is passed around. But it’s OK, since no one’s watching. Or are they?
As an actor, Franco has done a good job climbing out from behind his own brother’s shadow — he’s arguably to James as Casey Affleck is to Ben — and he proves to be an attentive, capable director. Clocking in at just under 90 minutes, “The Rental” has zero fat on its bones. Working from a nuanced script co-written with filmmaker Joe Swanberg, Franco sets up a character-based grid of emotional subtexts and lets the actors and the atmosphere take it from there. White has the least to do, but Stevens gradually reveals good-time Charlie’s hollow core, and Brie (who’s Mrs. Dave Franco offscreen) makes Michelle touchingly naive. Vand — the skateboarding vampire of the modern horror classic “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” — muddies one’s sympathies as Mina, a smart woman who does one dumb thing.
“The Rental” takes a less-is-more approach to horror, and even after the mayhem becomes explicit, the movie leaves enough unexplained to both remain nightmarishly suggestive and to open the door for a sequel. But I don’t think Franco will be back. He’s already proved he can take the generic and make it memorable through craft, collaboration, and intelligence.
Directed by Dave Franco. Written by Franco and Joe Swanberg. Starring Dan Stevens, Alison Brie, Sheila Vand, Jeremy Allen White. Available on cable systems and streaming platforms. 88 minutes. R (violence, language throughout, drug use, some sexuality).