THE RENTAL

Producers: Dave Franco, Elizabeth Haggard, Teddy Schwarzman, Ben Stillman, Joe Swanberg and Christopher Storer   Director: Dave Franco   Screenplay: Dave Franco and Joe Swanberg   Cast: Dan Stevens, Alison Brie, Sheila Vand, Jeremy Allen White, Toby Huss and Anthony Molinari   Distributor: IFC Films

Grade: B

In “You Should Have Left” a few weeks back, Kevin Bacon leased a house in Wales for a family vacation, and things did not turn out well.  More recently in “The Beach House,” Liana Liberato joined her boyfriend for a vacation at his family’s home-away-from-home on the Massachusetts coast, and their idyll went very badly.  Now Dan Stevens rents a lovely Oregon place on a cliff high above the churning Pacific for a weekend getaway with his wife, brother and the latter’s girlfriend, and—you guessed it—matters go decidedly south.  Is nowhere safe?

“The Rental” represents a filmmaking debut for actor Dave Franco, James’s brother, who co-wrote the script with mini-budget indie auteur Joe Swanberg (“Drinking Buddies”) and is directing a feature for the first time.  It shows no sign of the goofiness he’s often exhibited in front of the camera.  Instead it’s a tidy little thriller that, while not eschewing some humorous asides, mixes relationship drama with old-fashioned horror movie elements, the latter thankfully in comparatively restrained terms.

The story begins in an office where Charlie (Stevens) and Mina (Sheila Vand), his partner in some undefined start-up operation, are celebrating their recent success.  Charlie checks out weekend rental properties and finds a great place overlooking the ocean, and though when Mina, who’s Iranian-American, tries to book it, her application is rejected, Charlie’s goes through without a hitch.  Charlie’s brother (and Mina’s significant other) Josh (Jeremy Allen White), a semi-slacker who’s served time for a college assault, arrives to learn that he’ll be going off with his girlfriend, his brother and Charlie’s wife Michelle (Alison Brie) for two days of fun.

There are some initial glitches.  Josh insists on bringing along his pug Reggie, despite a “no pets” policy on the rental agreement.  And Mina is still stewing over the fact that the owner discriminated against her by rejecting her application, Charlie’s oblivious assurances to the contrary notwithstanding.  When the caretaker, the owner’s gruff bother Taylor (Toby Huss), shows up to hand over the keys and give a tour of the place, she pointedly challenges him on the matter, and his response is not at all reassuring.

Still, the place is lovely and the four settle in for a good time.  There’s dancing all around, drinking (especially by Josh), and roughhousing between the brothers, as well as food and some drugs.  An there’s a hot tub, to which Charlie and Mina repair while Josh passes out and Michelle goes off to sleep.  There it’s not just the water that’s simmering, and soon the two are engaged in something more passionate—although both agree that it can never happen again.

Unfortunately Mina makes a discovery that threatens to put their plan to keep their infidelity a secret in jeopardy.  She finds a camera in the shower head that would have caught their bathroom clinch on film.  She marks Taylor as the culprit, and intends to confront him when Michelle calls him in to repair the now-malfunctioning hot tub.  Meanwhile one of the party disappears, and before long there’s a corpse to contend with.  More secret cameras are uncovered, and it becomes apparent that there might be somebody other than Taylor involved.

It wouldn’t be fair, either to the filmmakers of the viewers, to be overly specific about the details; suffice it to say that while the screenplay requires a rigorous suspension of disbelief at a few points, overall it’s a taut piece of work, and Franco’s canny direction, along with strong work from the excellent cast, put it across.  The characters are somewhat more than the sketches that so often fill such genre pieces, and the four stars manage to add shadings to the ensemble interaction that make them fairly credible as real human beings, while Huss, while suitably nasty, is nuanced enough to make one wonder whether he’s the guilty party.  Even Chunk, who plays Reggie, is less irritating than movie dogs often are.

The film also satisfies visually, with the striking locations—and Meredith Lippincott’s effective production design—well caught in Christian Sprenger’s widescreen lensing.  Kyle Reiter’s crisp editing keeps things moving—and clear in the potentially confusing last act—while the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans captures the mood changes effectively, adding juice to the action moments and a note of menace where needed.

All told, this “Rental” is an assured, if not highly original, mash-up of domestic drama and horror movie, well worth plunking down some cash for on a streaming service.  It represents an auspicious debut for Franco, and closes with an invitation to a sequel so blatant that it almost seems prefabricated.