We rarely see “behind the scenes” footage of mysterious masked killers in the movies. Does Michael Myers from “Halloween” spend a lot of downtime lifting weights and practicing parkour moves so he can fall from second-story windows and quickly dust himself off and disappear? Does Jason from “Friday the 13th” watch “Forged in Fire” and grunt his opinions about the blacksmiths making swords and hatchets and knives? Does Leatherface from “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” go shopping for spare parts when the chainsaw breaks down?
Without spoiling any particulars of Dave Franco’s stylish, wickedly funny and legit scary “The Rental,” suffice to say there’s a fantastic sequence involving a certain villain’s rituals, and it’s one of the reasons why this is one of my favorite horror movies of the year. Co-written by Franco and the prolific and gifted Chicago filmmaker Joe Swanberg (“Win It All,” “Digging for Fire,” “Happy Christmas”), this is a dark and brutal cautionary tale that traffics in any number of familiar scary-movie touchstones, but does so in consistently clever and entertaining fashion. (This marks the feature directorial debut for Franco, the actor from films such as “The Disaster Artist” and “Neighbors” and little bro to James. It’s a smashing rookie effort.)
“The Rental” is the fifth movie in the last couple of months (after “Relic,” “Four Kids and It,” “You Should Have Left” and “Becky”) about a small group of people who have gathered in a large dwelling in a remote location, where things start going sideways even before they’ve unpacked their bags and figured out the locations of the light switches. In this case, it’s two couples: a startup entrepreneur named Charlie (Dan Stevens) and his smart, level-headed wife Michelle (Alison Brie), and Charlie’s hot-tempered younger brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White), an ex-con who is trying to turn his life around and can’t believe he’s entered into a serious relationship with Mina (Sheila Vand), who is Dan’s business partner and closest friend, and is clearly out of Josh’s league. Why, it’s almost as if Mina is with Josh just so she can spend even more time with Charlie, cough-cough.
To celebrate a big breakthrough Charlie and Mina have made at their company, Charlie goes online and rents an amazing house on the Oregon coast for the weekend. Road trip! Even though the Brit Dan Stevens (doing a fine job of masking his “Downton Abbey” accent) and the Brooklyn-born Jeremy Allen White (best known for playing “Lip” on the Chicago-set “Shameless”) look nothing like brothers, they do an excellent job of establishing the complicated sibling dynamic, with Josh getting the trip off on the wrong foot by bringing along his French bulldog, Reggie, even though the rules clearly state no pets allowed. We get the feeling Charlie is in a constant state of aggravation around his brother but is always around to clean up after him because that’s what big brothers do.
When the group arrives at the gorgeously appointed, cliffside house, they’re met by the rough-hewn, pickup-driving, blunt-speaking Taylor (Toby Huss in a great supporting performance), who manages the property for his brother and almost immediately makes the foursome uncomfortable with his barely concealed racism toward Mina (who is of Middle Eastern descent) and his combative conversational tone. What a creep! And he has keys to the place, uh-oh.
Cinematographer Christian Spenger delivers appropriately ominous visuals of the fog swirling around the property; low-angle, tension-building shots of a mysterious locked room underneath the main house, and a number of voyeuristic angles that indicate someone is eavesdropping on the proceedings from a distance. Despite the interaction with the unsettling Taylor, the group is excited about spending quality time together and getting effed up on drinks and drugs, and going on an ambitious hike — but with one possible exception, these are not the nicest or most trustworthy people in the world, and the deceptions and betrayals get more shocking (and have more dire consequences) as the weekend segues from dreamy getaway to nightmarish get-me-out-of-here.
All four leads are terrific, but the versatile Alison Brie is the standout as the chipper and upbeat Michelle, who is seemingly the least complicated character but becomes fantastically forthright when she’s high — and understandably nasty when she discovers some devastating information about her loving husband.
“The Rental” would have worked purely as a compelling character study about four dysfunctional adults unraveling over the course of a long weekend — but when the presence of a homicidal maniac is introduced to the proceedings, the transition to horror film is brilliant and wacky and pretty darn great.