Pals’ road trip takes a nicely creepy turn

Chicago Sun-Times - - WEEKEND PLUS - RICHARD ROEPER rroeper@sun­times.com @RichardERo­eper

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?

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 (“Dig­ging for Fire”), 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. 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. 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, pick­up­driv­ing, 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 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.

IFC FILMS

Mina (Sheila Vand) is part of a group stay­ing in a beau­ti­ful but omi­nous va­ca­tion home on the Ore­gon coast in “The Rental.”

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