Living in a digital age comes with a loss of privacy. We cover our webcams and use encrypted messaging apps to at least provide some peace of mind, but sensitive photos and information can still be leaked from “the cloud” anyway. There’s also an apparent disconnect because, while we want to retain our privacy, we’re willing to stay in a stranger’s home. This, and their paranoia of home-sharing, is what inspired the premise behind first-time director Dave Franco and co-writer Joe Swanberg’s film The Rental. “The country is as divided as it’s ever been, and no one trusts each other, yet we trust staying in the home of a stranger simply because of a few positive reviews online,” Franco says in the film’s press notes. Voyeurism in film isn’t always repugnant as the definition of the word indicates. Like in Rear Window, sometimes a character spies on their neighbor out of simple curiosity or suspicion. In The Rental, however, voyeurism is used like in any slasher: a killer spying on his prey’s every move, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. Taking a stab at the subgenre, Franco and Swanberg play with real-world fears, delivering a horror-thriller that’s both disturbing and deadly.
The Rental follows Charlie (Dan Stevens), Michelle (Alison Brie), Mina (Sheila Vand), and Josh (Jeremy Allen White), two couples and old friends who are planning a getaway. They book an Airbnb, a beautiful home nestled on a seaside cliff, and settle in for a relaxing weekend. But with their suspicious (and racist) host, the classic foreboding music cues, spooky atmosphere, and a mysterious locked door under the deck, the audience is clued in early on that drugs and alcohol won’t be the only thing knocking out the renters. As the weekend commences, the film presents itself first as a relationship drama, with horror elements accentuating these dynamics, as the friends learn secrets about each other with two of them finding themselves in a very compromising position. All of this leading to the revelation that they’re being watched. At first, it’s just to the viewer’s knowledge – the camera showing the voyeur’s point of view – until they discover hidden cameras in the bathrooms; that “peeping tom” voyeurism in full effect. The film moves slowly, tensions taking a while to heighten; but when they do, it’s edge-of-your-seat suspense. As the characters try to get themselves out of the deadly situation they find themselves in, you spend the last 30 minutes wondering what could possibly happen next.
Franco and Swanberg have written a character dynamic that feels similar to that of the game Until Dawn: a group of friends who think they know each other well but slowly come to realize that may not be the case at all. Through the things they discover about each other, the audience gets to know each and every one individually too. With Stevens’s appearance in films like The Guest, Brie in Scream 4, and Vand in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, it’s a cast that’s familiar with genre work. White, mostly known for his role on Shameless, seems to be the odd one out, but his character is the most explosive and broken of the bunch, fitting right into the genre and this well-written group.
When discussing The Rental, it’s best to leave much unsaid. It may not be as frightening as Until Dawn or as gory as other slashers, but it contains the same dumb decision making and predictable beats that plagues almost all of them. But Franco knows how to make a mark, especially in his writing, as he and Swanberg make the bold decision to erase one of the slasher subgenre’s signature tropes, creating a film that, while containing a fairly simple premise, feels new. Known for his roles in films like The Disaster Artist and Now You See Me, Franco proves to have a bright future ahead as a director and the skills to write and direct genre films, creating a slasher that manages to feel so out of the norm that it may just be the most frightening of them all. The Rental will make you think twice the next time you want to book an Airbnb, and its final credit scene will give you chills.
The Rental will be available to rent or buy on VOD streaming platforms July 24 from IFC Films.