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'The Rental': Low-key horror-chiller with 4 strong performances

Dan Stevens.Sheila Vand  and Jeremy Allen White

Dan Stevens.Sheila Vand  and Jeremy Allen White  in "The Rental." Credit: IFC Films/Allyson Riggs

PLOT Two couples rent a vacation house from a mysterious owner.

CAST Dan Stevens, Sheila Vand, Alison Brie

LENGTH 1:28

RATED R (bloody violence, brief sexuality)

WHERE On demand

BOTTOM LINE A low-key horror-chiller made watchable by strong performances.

Dave Franco’s “The Rental,” about a coastal vacation home that turns into a death trap, is a perfect example of the new, pandemic-spawned film genre we might call Better-to-Do Cinema. Is the movie a dazzlingly original concept, featuring A-list stars and executed with eye-popping visual style? No — but you got something better to do?

Even by that standard, Franco’s directorial debut barely clears the bar for a lazy evening of home viewing. On the one hand, it boasts four fine actors who get to settle into their characters and aren’t forced to go through the motions of easy jump-scares. Franco slowly builds an atmosphere of disquietude and dread, which gives the movie an intelligent, grown-up feeling. On the other hand, the script is lopsided and meandering, and that aforementioned build-up only leads to disappointment.

Franco, known mostly for comedies (“Neighbors,” “21 Jump Street”), wrote the script with Joe Swanberg, himself a director whose talky “mumblecore” movies include “Drinking Buddies” and “Nights and Weekends.” You can feel the Swanberg touch as the movie’s four characters — two couples — gather at the house and reveal their personalities and back stories. The men are brothers: Charlie (Dan Stevens), a white-collar creative type, and Josh (Jeremy Allen White), a bit of a roughneck. Charlie is married to Michelle (Alison Brie, Franco’s real-life wife), while Josh is dating Charlie’s business partner, a dark-eyed beauty named Mina (Sheila Vand, of the indie-horror hit “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”).

They’re a convivial group of youngish adults, dropping ecstasy on a whim and holding a mini-rave in the living room, though we also sense an illicit attraction between two of them. While all four actors deliver solid performances, the standouts here are Stevens and Vand: He plays a glib charmer with slippery morals, she radiates a subtle desirability.

It’s clear from the start that someone is watching the house and everyone in it. From that simple premise, though, the movie has trouble coming up with twists and turns. Because there are so few of those in this short, 88-minute feature, I won’t say much more about them. It’s worth noting, though, that the big reveal — the identity of the stalker — is woefully unimpressive, a figure borrowed from one of the most famous horror films of all time. At that point, even with roughly another half-hour to go, you might just change the channel on “The Rental.”

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