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Acclaimed actor Dave Franco should be garnering plenty of kudos for his debut as a director with the new IFC horror movie THE RENTAL that opens today on VOD. The film is an insinuating and sly frightener that showcases Franco’s ability with actors, his subtle creation of suspense, and avoidance of egregious cliches that too often plague the genre. It’s a minor miracle in its way and hopefully will reap him more helming assignments.

Franco’s success here starts with the story he wrote with Joe Swanberg and Mike Demski. The three shrewdly thumb their noses at almost all the cliches that mar too many ‘haunted house’ tales. Gone is the dilapidated, creepy, old mansion, replaced by a slick and modern Airbnb. There are no one-dimensional characters in the piece, instead, everyone is complicated. And, most impressively, the narrative unfolds in very believable ways, escalating the stakes without forcing hands.

The same avoidance of egregious tropes is evident throughout Franco’s direction. It starts with how he introduces his cast. Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Mina (Sheila Vand) are introduced at the office perusing an Airbnb website for a getaway weekend. They sit close together and their chemistry would suggest they’re a couple. But they are not. Instead, he’s married and she’s dating his younger brother. It’s a good surprise and keeps us off-guard from those opening moments.

It’s also a clever tease, one that foreshadows screenwriting guru Blake Snyder’s “Monster in the House” trope about how heroes in horror unwittingly invite danger into their worlds. Indeed, the undeniable sexual buzz between the two of them will become as much of a threat to their mini-vacation as the sadist lying in wait for them at the Airbnb.

Soon, Charlie and Mina are on the road together, heading for the Airbnb location in the woods, along with Charlie’s wife Michelle (Alison Brie) and brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White). Mina is revealed to be a bit of an agitator in these early scenes, starting with her complicity in Josh’s breaking the Airbnb’s “no pets” restrictions by bringing along his beloved bulldog Ralphie.

Mina further complicates the mix by taking umbrage at the veiled racism of Taylor (Toby Huss), the Airbnb caretaker. She calls him out on it almost immediately and that sets up some undesired tension and unwarranted suspicion between the caretaker and his guests. Still, Franco ensures that these conflicts aren’t overplayed. Mina remains likable, the dog doesn’t become a nuisance, and Taylor is not the drooling hick you’d often see in such antagonist roles.

Real-life couple Dave Franco and Alison Brie shine with their work in THE RENTAL.

Nor is Michelle an uptight and dull wife. The film makes her the most appealing of the four vacationers, a woman who’s responsible enough to go to bed when she’s tired, and frisky enough to pull out a dime bag of ecstasy with promises of fully-committed partying. Brie gives a terrific performance in the role, letting her large, expressive eyes and halting hesitations speak volumes about her character’s discomfort at the unspooling of events. 

And Josh, despite a backstory of time in prison, is not the complete ne’er-do-well sibling he’d be in many inferior horror efforts. White makes his character amusing even when he’s tossing off bad puns and doting excessively on his pooch, and the script gives him plenty of nobleness as well as brashness when the horrors start piling up later in the film. (The fate of Ralphie is also nowhere near as obvious as it would be in dozens of other frighteners.)

Suffice it to say, the chemistry between Dan and Mina will ignite and the weekend’s feel-good vibe will go up in smoke with it. Secrets will be revealed that do not bode well for the family unit, at times edging up on a WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF feeling. And most surprising of all, those thought to be villainous aren’t so bad, and those striving for heroics make everything demonstrably worse. Franco and his team have clearly seen enough horror films to know just how to mix things up for far better scares.

THE RENTAL is a film that builds its tension slowly but surely and remains smart even when some characters put themselves needlessly in harm’s way. When the violence does finally explode, Franco keeps it from becoming an over-the-top bloodbath too. In fact, more often than not, he cuts away from the gore just before it’s about to splatter on screen. More horror directors should be so disciplined.

If you’re looking for a horror film that creates characters and dread with equal skill while rejecting most of the “been-there, done-that” sins of the genre, THE RENTAL is the VOD rental for you. And with the skill he’s shown here, it’ll be a distinct pleasure to see just what Dave Franco directs next.

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