Of all the horror subgenres, slashers have the least use for memorable characters. People in those movies don’t need to have rich inner lives as much as they need to die gruesome deaths. If they can make some sort of impression before their inevitable offing, then that’s nice, but it’s certainly not required.
Still, it’s theoretically a plus that actor Dave Franco focuses his directoral debut The Rental on a quartet of interesting characters. In a total 180 from his outsized performance in last month’s Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, Dan Stevens plays Charlie, a business bro who decides to celebrate the launch of his start-up by renting a lavish house on an oceanside cliff. Coming along with him is his wife Michelle (Alison Brie), his business partner Mina (Sheila Vand), and his brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White).
The two couples arrive brewing with tension, even before the masked killer shows up. A perpetual screw-up whose life turned around when he started dating Mina, Josh worries about her close relationship with Charlie. Michelle just wants to rest and hike, something noone else seems interested in. And Charlie can’t shake the feeeling that Mina’s too good for his brother. To make matters worse, the house’s caretaker Taylor (Toby Huss) drops by to ingore boundaries and toss casual racism at Mina.
These conflicts bear the mark of Franco’s co-writer Joe Swanberg. Any one of them could belong to characters from Swanberg’s movies Happy Christmas or Digging for Fire, stories about likeable people who make dumb decisions. The cast helps things along with strong performances all around. Stevens’s understanding of his own charisma lets him foreground his character’s oblivious flakiness without losing the audience. Conversely, Brie pulls back the overeagerness she brought to Community and GLOW to play Michelle as a patient peacemaker. White fills Josh’s every action with regret and hope as his character tries to turn a new leaf, and Vand imbues Mina with self-assurance as she combats the many slights against her.
But the real standout here is Huss, who finds depth in what could have been a broad stereotype. Taylor makes no apologies for his racism, nor for his disdain for the renters. But Huss keeps it tamped down and direct, making Taylor speak with the privilaged confidence of someone who gives no attention to perspectives other than his own.
Franco distingushes his film from Swanberg’s mumble-core outings with its handsome visuals. Working with editor Kyle Rieter and director of photography Christain Sprenger give the film a stately, shadow feel. They let Franco take time building his world, helping him slow the narrative down and capture tiny moments between characters. When Mina stares at the mirror after a particularly bad decision, Franco needs Vand to only stand perfectly still and let the image itself tell the story. When we first meet Charlie and Mina, sitting close together, the framing and pacing of the scene tells us everything about their connection, long before Josh confesses his concerns about it.
And yet, despite all of these positives, The Rental fails as a slasher. It’s not because Franco made any particular mistake. There’s something novel to the way the villain uses surveillance footage and cell phones to torture the victims. And the killer’s old man mask is just as distinctive as anything we’ve seen since Ghostface in Scream.
But where movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Strangers, and even You’re Next (in which Swanberg appears) build terror from the random nature of the killings, the last third of The Rental feels as rote as Friday the 13th part VIII. I like the characters here, and I believe that they’re experiencing something terrible. And yet, when the bodies start to pile up, I can’t muster anything more than a shrug.
In a way, The Rental shows us why we don’t need three-dimensional characters in a slasher movie. If they’re all going to die anyway, what’s the point?