It is tough to get a handle on what Dave Franco is trying to do with his first time writing and directing a feature. The horror genre can be a thrilling place for new directors to show their cinematic skills. The horror genre also demands certain respect for the genre. There is a reason why it has such an immense fan-base.
The first half of The Rental plays as a drama about two couples and the conflicts right under the surface of their relationships. The setup works well. This is in part due to the great cast that includes Dan Stevens, Jeremy Allen White, Sheila Vand, and Alison Brie. When the horror elements do kick in, it dashes the drama and replaces it with a thriller that lacks any thrills. The horror half fails in almost every way making the first half that worked seem less enjoyable.
The Rental aims to make people afraid of the Airbnb experience. Charlie (Stevens) and his assistant Mina (Vand) decide to book a spacious beach house for them to get away with their significant others before work gets crazy. While Charlie and Mina are professional partners, the opening moments fake us out that they are a romantic partner. Franco means for us to make this mistake in order to create the tension that drives the film's first half. Mina is actually dating Charlie's brother Josh (White). Josh is a kind but hot-headed bro who Charlie treats with condescension. Charlie is married to Michelle (Brie) who never seems threatened by Mina.
The owner's brother greets them when they get in. Played by Toby Huss, he quickly fits the mold of a horror villain, even letting himself into the house while they are out walking on the beach. Still, the focus is largely on the tension between Charlie and Mina. On the first night, they decide to do MDMA. Michelle opts out as she wants to be ready for the day-trip she has planned in the morning. Josh passes out early and soon Charlie and Mina find themselves alone. They sleep together and what could have followed would have been an interesting look into the fallout of their actions.
However, this is all prelude as The Rental reveals that the house has cameras everywhere. All the time spent into these interesting characters and their relationships is thrown out for some scares that feel underdeveloped. Thankfully Franco doesn't have the pontifical qualities that make his older brother's films so painful to watch. The Rental is a brisk 88-minute film with a sleek look and good performances. It is just that so little of the horror is staged well. There are few moments but you can almost feel that Franco is less interested or confident in these elements. There is more tension and suspense when the film is just a relationship drama.