Dave Franco’s ‘The Rental’ Imagines an Airbnb Getaway From Hell With Simple Intensity

The Rental” explores every weird, paranoid idea you could ever have about staying in a strange house. Creepy tension is what works best in this directorial debut by actor Dave Franco. He works with sparse materials. Four actors and one house is all that is required here. Some movies can thrive on tone alone. There are many movies with “realistic” characters that aimlessly wander, that we welcome something that may not be a masterpiece, but does get under our skin. 

Four friends are introduced, who are nearly tailor-made for a horror trap. Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Mina (Sheila Vand) have just secured seed money for a business venture. To celebrate they decide to rent a plush home out in the countryside for the weekend. Accompanying them are Charlie’s girlfriend, Michelle (Alison Brie), and Mina’s boyfriend, who is also Charlie’s brother, Josh (Jeremy Allen White). Josh brings his own baggage from being a dropout, and having a record for an assault. Even he admits Mina is way out of his league. Indeed, it’s easy to suspect something is going on between Mina and Charlie. When the four arrive at the rental home it’s all they could hope for. The owner, Taylor (Toby Huss), gives off an awkwardly passive aggressive vibe, but once he’s gone, it’s party time. Soon, however, tensions between the couples begin to rise, along with the terrible notion that not all is right in this house. Once Mina makes an absolutely disturbing discovery in one of the house bathrooms, the real terror begins.

Movies like “The Rental” keep an old B-movie tradition alive and well. It lacks the sophistication of recent films by directors like Jordan Peele, this is not “Get Out” or “Us,” but basks in its own absurdity. Yet like any strong B-thriller, there’s enough plausibility in the story to make it unnerving. The screenplay by Franco and Joe Swanberg barely takes the time to provide any exposition. It is never exactly clear what Chris and Mina do together as a business. It is also not a spoiler to say by the end credits you will be left wondering about an explanation for the source of the group’s subsequent torture.  Much of the dialogue has to be seen in the B-movie, exploitation, tradition. There are even small jabs at current politics. Mina’s last name is Mohammadi, so she immediately suspects Taylor must be a racist, since she attempted to reserve the house first and was rejected. Because the cast is strong it is pulled off entertainingly well. You need good actors to have preposterous Jacuzzi makeout sessions and shower affairs. When the group decides to get stoned everyone seems to be having real fun. 

What is also done very well is the technical craft of the film. This is its best feature. Franco and cinematographer Christian Sprenger, who has given FX’s “Atlanta” its silky glow, make the rental home into its own character. Bedrooms feel shadowy and eerie. Beyond the house it looks like you could easily get lost if you walk five feet. A real sense of claustrophobia overtakes the movie. Audiences now used to several months of submarine syndrome at home will surely be spooked. An underlying theme is how few things are as they seem. Relationships are not always perfect. People are cheating right in front of our eyes. Our worst suspicions sometimes turn out to be very spot on. Before Franco unleashes the terror he captures all of this visually with some strong deft. Two characters make such a profound mistake, that by the time Mina steps into that shower and looks up at something strange, we are already hooked. 

Once the scares begin “The Rental” avoids becoming too much of a gore fest. An outside threat begins torturing the group by violating their privacy, in a way that will make you think twice about staying at an Airbnb (or any unfamiliar house for that matter). Secrets will be revealed in a way more than appropriate for our digital, camera-obsessed era. Franco uses some familiar tricks from recent thrillers, but with a nightmarish ambiance. There will be blood. However, Franco never lingers on the gore. He knows it is scarier to just know something is wrong. The final moments are as paranoid as anything in films like “Dark Web” or “Escape Room,” but less over-the-top. A movie like this can work when it makes an extreme idea feel real. 

By the end of “The Rental” some viewers may feel silly for having gone along with it. But that is part of its odd and eerie charm. For Franco this is a decent exercise to get his acting chops. It’s a low-budget scare designed to make you check every closet and think twice about staying in a stranger’s house. It taps into the modern sensation that we are never truly private anymore. That is a scare that is real enough.

The Rental” releases July 24 on VOD.