August 10, 2020

Review: Dave Franco makes a horror movie with characters you can care about


Dan Stevens and Alison Brie in “The Rental.” Photo: IFC Films

Dave Franco’s first movie as a writer-director is founded on an experiment. Instead of the usual horror movie, in which the characters are stick figures and the horror situation is the entire point, what about a horror movie with really strong, engaging characters? What about a horror movie in which the characters are already in an interesting situation, and the horror is just an added element to compound the tension?

The result: Well, it was worth a try.

The basic idea here is that the characters should enhance the horror by making us care about them, and for a while that’s what happens. But the ultimate destination of horror — at least modern horror — is the dehumanization of its characters. Thus, ultimately, the horror genre can’t be enhanced in this way. It must drag its characters down and turn them into meat puppets in order for the horror to function.

Still, “The Rental” comes close to working. Franco’s co-screenwriter here is Joe Swanberg (“Drinking Buddies”), a major name in the mumblecore genre, and he and Franco get the first part of their experiment right. They create a compelling dynamic between four interesting characters.

The beginning is straight out of a mumblecore movie about young adults that might have been made by Swanberg or the Duplass brothers: Charlie (Dan Stevens) is looking at a computer screen, and Mina (Sheila Vand) is hanging on his shoulder. They’re deciding whether to rent a beautiful vacation house for the weekend. From their body language, we assume that they’re a couple, but we soon find out that they’re business partners, and that Mina is in a relationship with Charlie’s brother, Josh (Jeremy Allen White).

We recognize straightaway that there’s a quality to Mina and Charlie’s interaction that’s not entirely platonic. They’re physically comfortable with each other in a way that seems offhand and unconscious, like they belong together even if they don’t know it yet.

Sheila Vand in “The Rental.” Photo: IFC

So the four go off to the vacation house, Josh and Mina and Charlie and his wife Michelle (Alison Brie). The agent who meets them (Toby Huss) is creepy and vaguely aggressive, but that’s not much of a problem. Mainly, “The Rental” is, at this stage, about the intersecting relationships between four youngish people, basking in a brief and well-earned break from responsibility. In this section, the movie benefits from one of the real-life aspects of renting a vacation house in the middle of nowhere: At night, when the lights are on inside and it’s dark outside, you can feel like you’re on display.

One has to wonder if, at this or any point, Franco and his collaborators considered dumping the horror angle altogether and just pursuing the story of these four people. They’re appealing enough. Stevens and Brie are subtle, funny and, in a seemingly casual way, precise in delineating a marriage’s strengths and fault lines. Equally impressive is the lesser-known Sheila Vand, who has the film’s most multi-faceted role as the witty, conflicted and ultimately terrified Mina.

Franco may have intended to point a new direction in horror, but he did something else: He showed how sometimes the smart thing is to throw away your plan. Halfway through the movie he should have realized that what he was making had no business being a routine horror movie.

Instead of slavishly appending cliched horror tropes onto his otherwise worthy script, Franco should have at least taken the horror genre seriously enough to investigate how he might stretch it and make it better. That was within his reach, if only he’d reached for it. Maybe next time he will.

L“The Rental”: Horror. Starring Sheila Vand, Alison Brie and Dan Stevens. Directed by Dave Franco. (R. 90 minutes.) Available through video on demand starting Friday, July 24.





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