Archive for the Horror Category

Synchronic

Posted in Drama, Horror, Mystery, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on April 20, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Synchronic is one of those films that is conveniently described as “interesting” and it’s unclear whether you mean it as a compliment. The ambiguous word is perfection because it fits this movie to a T. Steve and Dennis (Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan) are paramedics in New Orleans who also happen to be best friends. They encounter a rash of unusual deaths in their line of work. A new designer drug called Synchronic is the common thread that unites all of the cases. It would appear this drug — which is sold in single-dose packets — might have otherworldly powers. When his partner’s daughter Brianna goes missing, Steve investigates.

The narrative is a slow starter. The first half establishes the close relationship between the central duo. It’s nice to see their bond is a positive depiction of male friendship. However, both men are adrift in their everyday lives, occasionally turning to drugs and alcohol to numb the pain. Anthony Mackie’s character is a ladies’ man that has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Jamie Dornan portrays a man who had difficulty meeting women in the past (!) but is now married with two kids. He’s currently having marital problems. When the pair confront a series of bizarre fatalities in their job, it unfolds like a crime drama, disseminated in fragments using a piecemeal approach.

The second half improves. Steve becomes the hero as it concerns his investigation into the whereabouts of Brianna. His EMT partner Dennis is mostly sidelined. Dennis’ vague personality lacks a compelling identity anyway. Steve’s experimentation with Synchronic is intriguing. Here the chronicle starts to connect the threads of the grisly murders we witnessed before. These developments provide some much-needed clarification in a picture heretofore wallowing in existential gloom. The script plays with the idea that sometimes nostalgia isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. “The past f—–g sucks, man!” Steve cries out at one point.

This is the fourth feature from filmmaking duo Justin Benson and Scott Moorhead who specialize in quirky features (Spring, The Endless) that blend sci-fi with horror. Synchronic debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019 but didn’t get released to the public until after Project Power and Tenet. It feels like an amalgamation of those movies but through a low-budget indie B-movie aesthetic. Synchronic is a real downer of a film. Not a criticism. Just a fact. Nevertheless, its aimless meandering feels somewhat pointless until that mic drop of an ending involving a troubling sacrifice. The “good old days” are a misnomer. “Be thankful you live in the present” is the veiled admonition presented in its final scene. Fair enough. However I suspect a hundred years from today, someone will make a similar movie condemning our current era.

04-19-21

Saint Maud

Posted in Drama, Horror, Mystery, Thriller with tags on February 15, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

I was starting to think this movie didn’t even exist. Saint Maud was one of the most promising premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2019. Shortly thereafter A24 acquired US distribution rights and planned to deliver it to theaters in April 2020, but then cinemas were shut down. A24 ultimately shelved the picture with no proposed US released date. It was finally dropped on the premium cable network EPIX on Feb 12, 2021. Hallelujah! Saint Maud has been freed from purgatory.

So the story concerns Maud (Morfydd Clark), a nurse who has recently become a devout Roman Catholic. There is a suggestion that the traumatic death of one of her patients prompted this conversion. She’s no longer employed at St. Afra’s hospital, however. Now she’s working as a personal home care nurse for a hospice patient (Jennifer Ehle). Amanda is a former dancer and understandably depressed in her current state. She does have friends that visit. She has a lover named Carol (Lily Frazer) as well. Maud doesn’t approve of these hedonistic interactions nor for the the fact that Amanda is an atheist. Maud comes to believe that God has called upon her to save Amanda’s soul.

Saint Maud is a striking film that uncannily elicits an ominous mood. Writer and director Rose Glass relies on religion as a motif. Faith in God has been a common theme in some of the very best horror movies. Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen are prime examples. This isn’t as narratively strong as those classics but the atmosphere is rather affecting. The dramatic portrayal of a woman conflicted by pious mania can be mesmerizing. Imagine Piper Laurie in Carrie but less overwrought and more sympathetic. Stylishly filmed and strongly acted, the chronicle is provocative and troubling. Maud is unquestionably odd but she remains a fascinating individual. She genuinely wishes to help Amanda. She is sincere in her convictions and that earnestness initially compels the audience to tentatively embrace this mission.

Saint Maud is a compelling study of a woman come undone. It could also have been an inspiring take on theological fervor as well, but it falls short of understanding her beliefs. Maud soon veers into episodes of religious fanaticism that do make her seem a bit unbalanced. In disturbing episodes, Maud inflicts pain upon herself as some sort of absolution. In one scene, she punches several thumbtacks through two prayer cards. She then inserts them into her shoes to be transformed by the agony as she walks around town. As a person of faith, I am prone to regard such behavior as preposterous. However, there is some basis for these acts of spiritual discipline. Although it isn’t common, some ardent practitioners in the Philippines willingly subject themselves to an actual crucifixion. The Catholic Church condemns such acts of self-flagellation. Yet a small sect of believers continue to practice in this manner. Some insight into Maud’s thought process here could have deepened our understanding of this woman and transported the narrative to a higher plane. “It’s not a religion for wusses,” Carla once reductively explained to Sam on the TV show Cheers after he complained about the difficulty of doing a Catholic penance. This is cerebral horror that explores the passion of religion and then how those ideas can be distorted. Indie film distributor A24 also gave us The Lighthouse and The Witch. If you’re looking for that kind of experience, this should satisfy that thirst.

Run

Posted in Drama, Horror, Mystery, Thriller with tags on December 3, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

It wasn’t her first role, but I suppose people first became aware of Sarah Paulson back in 1995 on the supernatural-themed TV series American Gothic on CBS. It only ran for one season, but she’s been steadily working ever since. She’s arguably one of the hardest working people in show business. She’s done Broadway (The Glass Menagerie), starred in the ABC network TV program Cupid in 2009, and performed in supporting roles in a plethora of high profile films (12 Years a Slave, Ocean’s 8). However, what’s brought the most acclaim is her ongoing involvement in the FX anthology American Horror Story. She has portrayed many different characters on AHS. It has earned the actress a Golden Globe and 6 Emmy nominations for that show alone. She just began another similarly themed TV series Ratched on Netflix. She’s good at horrifying people. I mean that as a compliment. She radiates goodness on the surface but there’s a sinister quality underneath her placid exterior that is most unsettling. That edgy trait is put to good use here.

I didn’t’ watch Run when it debuted 2 weeks ago (November 20) on Hulu. It unexpectedly broke records as that streaming service’s most-watched film premiere ever. Then I took notice. The outstanding Palm Springs previously held that record. Run concerns a new mother (Sarah Paulson) who has recently given birth with complications. Flash forward 17 years later. Daughter Chloe, played by newcomer Kiera Allen, is in a wheelchair. She is housebound and chronically ill. Diane homeschools her daughter and seems to be a doting and loving parent. She unfailingly administers the medications Chloe requires to stay healthy. Then one day Diane gives Chloe an unfamiliar green pill. Chloe had inadvertently seen the bottle earlier. It was prescribed to her mother and this discovery creates a nagging suspicion in Chloe. She tries to get to the bottom of what’s happening.

Run is a modest but efficient thriller from director Aneesh Chaganty. He did the mystery movie Searching in 2018, a missing child saga entirely set on computers and smartphones. This is given a traditional approach, but it’s likewise compelling. Sarah Paulson is good at playing the kindly mother that may not be all she appears to be. Kiera Allen is impressive in her debut as Chloe. The actress has used a wheelchair for 6 years in real life. The account builds, exploiting a growing feeling of anxiety. Things get crazier and the adventure involves a battle of wits. The writing is dependable. As details unfold, however, there is a salient sense of predictability. The screenplay by Aneesh Chaganty and frequent collaborator Sev Ohanian contains foreseeable story beats. A game of pursuit, near captures, and escapes isn’t innovative. Yet a tale can succeed if the actors invoke your emotion. This boilerplate narrative might have failed in the hands of lesser talents. Paulson and Allen believably sell this movie. Because of them, I enjoyed Run.

11-23-20

The Dark and the Wicked

Posted in Horror with tags on November 9, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

“Not today Satan, not today!” I quietly whispered while watching this rumination on the devil. It was drag queen Bianca Del Rio who popularized this famous declaration on season 6 of RuPaul’s Drag Race back in 2014. Since then the phrase has become so ubiquitous that I doubt many people are even aware of its origin, but I like to educate as well as entertain with my reviews.

Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.) are siblings whose father (Michael Zagst) is slowly dying. The two arrive at their childhood home in Thurber, Texas to help support their mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone). Mom has been caring for their father alone in a large ranch house on an isolated farm. She is overwhelmed by grief. Instead of welcoming their assistance, she seems agitated by their arrival. The home has been possessed by a dark and wicked (hence the title) entity and she had wanted to spare them the trauma. Now that they’re here, they too have become victims to the spirit’s heinous presence.

The chronicle is a very grim tale that mines a growing hopelessness. Even the religious nurse (Lynn Andrews) isn’t immune to the evil lurking within the home. Louise and Michael are detached and distant — not the kind of likable protagonists we usually want to embrace. The two have drifted apart. Granted, they are human beings. We have a basic kinship with their characters and situation. Although far from enemies, they aren’t particularly supportive of one another. Their relationship is almost antagonistic. Perhaps they’re racked by the guilt of having abandoned their parents to a lonely existence. This tension adds to an already unsettling environment.

This is essentially a haunted house flick. Director Bryan Bertino (The Strangers) relies on tropes famously implemented in films like The Exorcist and The Shining. This isn’t as good as either of those classics but the filmmaker is smart enough to take inspiration from the best. The events play out during one week and title cards break up the chapters by reminding the viewer what day it is. These waking nightmares grow more threatening over that period. At first, it’s suggested the disturbing visions are merely the product of a troubled psyche. Their frequency and intensity soon proves otherwise. Something malevolent is seizing the family. The creativity of the shocks along with the aggressive nature of the demon make this story quite compelling. There is something genuinely sinister here.

The devil is (literally) in the details. Jump scares can be effective. Sound designer Joe Stockton is the MVP. Creaky floorboards have never seemed as frightening as they do here. Every sound effect is terrifying. Every manifestation of the demon is alarming. Its potency will depend on your own experiences and taste. I appreciate subtlety and restraint in my horror. The first half worked a lot better than the second where the gore becomes more overt. Also, I’m not a fan of abrupt endings where a situation goes unresolved. Put that misstep in the negative column as well. Still, the anxiety culled from this atmospheric piece is pitch-perfect manifestation of dread. Its ability to extract a visceral fear is masterful. I’m saying that yes, I was scared….a lot….by this film.

11-06-20

His House

Posted in Drama, Horror, Thriller with tags on November 3, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The greatest horror films have something more percolating beneath the surface than what is readily apparent. His House begins as an immigration drama about a married couple from South Sudan named Bol (Sopé Dìrísù) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) who are seeking asylum in Britain. As refugees, they’re given an expansive but dilapidated flat to live in for the time being. Soon after they discover a demonic presence within the home. Are these problems part of the residence itself or have visions of their very difficult past come to haunt them in this new setting?

The year 2020 can only charitably be described as a colossal mess. Perhaps that is the reason why the past 10 months have conspicuously released more horror films than I’ve ever seen. His House is yet another addition to the genre. There are deeper elements at work. The lives of this pair have been affected by unfathomable tragedy. Their daughter (Malaika Wakoli-Abigaba) drowned in a boat accident while they were trying to escape. To make matters worse, they’re working with a caseworker (Matt Smith) who reminds them they’re on probation and need to “fit in” to remain in their new environment. Bol buys clothes to match the photograph of a happy white family in an in-store display. He also joins the locals at the pub in a song about footballer Peter Crouch and starts eating with a knife and fork. Rial can’t abide by the utensils. “All I can taste is metal,” she complains. Their attempt to assimilate isn’t successful. Meanwhile, the evil spirits only seem to intensify.

Writer/director Remi Weekes’ first feature is basically a haunted house tale. Yet it’s a bit more. He presents a character study of well-developed characters. We care about the victims being terrorized which is always a good thing in any story. Remi Weekes explores some interesting ideas about how sometimes the terrors we’ve had to confront within our own lives are just as — if not more than — nightmarish as supernatural forces. Despite the artistic milieu, there are several effective jump scares that will entertain fans.

If only the conclusion had been afforded the same intellectual consideration. Peel back the layers of a complex foundation and you’re left with the essence of a scenario we’ve seen before. OK, sure, there’s a surprising plot twist thrown in, but to what end? The fantastic setup promises a dissertation on racism, xenophobia, and colonialism then devolves into a generic fable about guilt. A violent act suddenly provides a quick and easy solution. The disparity between the emptiness of what ultimately happens and the depth of what came before is vast. A clever metaphor needs a brilliant climax and this one sadly falters. Still, a fascinating effort that is well worth checking out.

10-30-20

Possessor

Posted in Drama, Horror, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on October 22, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 1 out of 5.

Possessor is brutal. This is horror with the mischievous intent to disturb. I’m not surprised. It’s precisely what I would expect from the son of David Cronenberg. Brandon’s last effort was Antiviral which came out almost a decade ago in 2012. His belated follow-up concerns the degeneration of the human mind. It honors repellent gore at the expense of a compelling plot. Visually it’s a stunner though. Brandon Cronenberg includes all of the superficial affectations that make his father’s work fascinating, but he forgets the fact that story and character development matter too.

Plotwise there isn’t a lot to discuss. Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) is a “possessor.” She works as a contract killer whose consciousness is implanted into the body of a person close to the target in order to carry out an assassination. She receives her orders from Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a relentless boss without any moral qualms whatsoever. Tasya is instructed to kill billionaire John Parse (Sean Bean). To do so, she is embedded into the psyche of Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), the boyfriend of John’s daughter, Ava (Tuppence Middleton). Despite Andrea Riseborough’s top billing, it is Christopher Abbott who occupies the bulk of the narrative. He’s a handsome fellow with a wooden personality that never displays any more than the bare minimum required to convey a human being. If he had been revealed to be a robot at the end, his impassivity would’ve made perfect sense.

Possessor isn’t a complicated film. The saga details a murder gone wrong. Yet a science fiction milieu has been grafted onto a simplistic outline that travels at a snail’s pace. The futuristic cyberpunk vibe elevates the atmosphere into something far more convoluted than the facade. I’m not saying the concept couldn’t have inspired something great. Christopher Nolan took the notion and made Inception — one of the greatest films of the past 10 years. Give the idea to the progeny of a famous filmmaker and you get lots of macabre ways to creatively kill people. As the body count grows, it’s apparent that Cronenberg is more interested in making people uncomfortable than telling an appealing story. This is a thoroughly repellent production that cruelly assaults the viewer without engaging our emotions. At least Karim Hussain’s cinematography imbues the carnage with an elegant sheen. It’s a testament to its style that this film has garnered some very positive reviews from the cognoscenti. I want substance however, and stomach-churning violence doesn’t qualify.

09-01-20

The Wolf House

Posted in Animation, Drama, Horror with tags on October 15, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Wolf House (La Casa Lobo) is like a fairy tale out of the Brothers Grimm. The twisted fables collected by those German authors definitely had an edge. Yet this is even more unnerving. Striking! Innovative! Hypnotic! Bizarre! Mere adjectives aren’t enough to do it justice. If you’re familiar with the work of the Brothers Quay or Jan Švankmajer then you’ll have a reference point at least. For others, this will be unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Regardless, it will undoubtedly be the strangest movie you will see this year. This first premiered in February 2018 at the Berlin International Film Festival. Since then it has won a slew of awards and garnered widespread critical acclaim. It finally received a release in May 2020 in the U.S.

Maria (Amalia Kassai) is a young woman who escapes from a German community in the south of Chile. She takes refuge in a mysterious house in the woods. From that seed of an idea, emerges a stop motion animated tableau that is an unforgettable display of creative ingenuity. Her thoughts progressively infect the walls of the dwelling in which she lives. The surfaces come to life in a nightmarish vision. The Wolf House is a living, breathing physical room that is a painstakingly created tactile world. The art installation combines papier-mâché, puppets, sculptures, paintings, and other artistic methods to create scenes that were staged and photographed in various galleries throughout the world. This was accomplished over the course of several years in full view of the public. Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña are artists turned filmmakers with a series of shorts to their credit. This is their first feature and judging by the warm response, not their last.

This dark tale has its roots in a very sinister reality. Paul Schäfer was a Nazi sergeant that ultimately fled Germany after he was charged with pedophilia. He escaped to South America and it was there that he formed Colonia Dignidad (Dignity Colony), an isolated cult in the Andean foothills of eastern Chile. It was portrayed to the public as a bucolic agrarian utopia but was in fact closer to an authoritarian Nazi police state. Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet used the colony as a detention camp to torture and execute political prisoners.

There are moments contained within this account I will never forget. Despite its disturbing inspiration, nothing presented is even remotely gory or violent. However, the eerie mood gradually works its way into your psyche and the effect can be unsettling. The narrative opens with an indoctrination video of an idyllic residence where the inhabitants live off the land in perfect harmony. The propaganda confers the settlement in a positive light. Supernatural developments ensue. Early on Maria finds two escaped pigs and she mothers them until they turn into human children. However, the ensuing production is not dependent on plot. Maria’s shoddy little shack is a constantly evolving nightmare of shapes and images. I sat there gobsmacked by the spectacle. During the chronicle, “the wolf” (Rainer Krause) is a foreboding presence that haunts Maria even after she escapes. His disembodied but seductive voice intones: “Maria…..Maria…..Maria.” He beckons her to return. It still gives me the chills.

09-03-20

Sputnik

Posted in Drama, Horror, Science Fiction with tags on August 17, 2020 by Mark Hobin

sputnikSTARS3Sputnik embraces an ethos that will undoubtedly endear itself to some viewers more than others.  Personally, I get it.  There’s something extremely satisfying about a thoughtful sci-fi saga.  Scientists that are driven by intellectual thought more closely resemble the way things play out in real life than an action star that shoots first and asks questions later.  However, a movie favoring cerebral over emotional impulses is going to yield a decidedly lower level of raw excitement.

The year is 1983.  Two Soviet astronauts…er uh excuse me…cosmonauts are sent into space.  They unexpectedly encounter something out in the galaxy.  They crash land in Kazakhstan.  Only Konstantin (Pyotr Fyodorov) survives.  Authoritarian military Colonel Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk) is in charge of the government’s effort to study him.  Tatyana (Oksana Akinshina) is the controversial but effective doctor he brings on board to assist.  English speakers will probably associate the title with the first satellite launched in 1957 by the Soviet Union.  However, Sputnik is also the Russian word for “companion” and that’s exactly how it is meant here.  Konstantin inadvertently brought something back with him.

Creature design and mood are the best parts.  The potent but restrained use of special effects is highly effective.  The alien looks a bit like the Hammerpede entity from Prometheus but with the face of a wolf spider.  It’s impossible not to see how the DNA of Alien (1979) is an inspiration for the story.  Many have taken note of the similarities.  However, where Alien took place in space, Sputnik is a claustrophobic saga set in a laboratory where an explorer is being studied.  Additionally, the personality of the extraterrestrial is significantly different.   I contend this story actually adheres a lot closer to the narrative of Venom (2018).

Sputnik is fascinating.  I was completely enrapt whenever the creature was on screen.  I enjoyed so much about this film.  Screenwriters Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev rely heavily on talky exposition for most of its runtime.  Yet many plot developments leave the spectator with questions that are still left unexplained by the end.  That’s a bit frustrating. The schizophrenic late in the movie shift to deliver a standard action movie style climax leaves a bad taste too.  Sputnik is the feature directorial debut of Egor Abramenko.  Given this audacious effort, I am interested to see what he does next.

08-15-20

She Dies Tomorrow

Posted in Drama, Horror, Thriller with tags on August 1, 2020 by Mark Hobin

she_dies_tomorrowSTARS1.5Not one feature in 2020 was inspired by the COVID‑19 pandemic.  After all, movies this year were made well before our current situation.  Oh, I’m sure at some point in the future a ton of releases will be directly influenced by our dystopian state of affairs.  Nevertheless, that hasn’t stopped us critics to carelessly reinterpret everything as a metaphor for Coronavirus disease.  This is the umpteenth film to be analyzed this way.  That may help make it seem more of the moment, but it also serves to emphasize that the narrative is extremely weak.  The constant threat of death we have faced over the past year coupled with state-mandated restrictions and economic shutdowns are so much worse than anything these entitled individuals have to endure.  Their life is a blissful utopia by comparison.

So a woman named Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) thinks she’s going to die tomorrow.  Amy expresses these feelings to her friend Jane (Jane Adams), who thinks she’s crazy at first.  Then Jane too thinks she’s going to die.  Jane likewise confides this to her brother Jason (Chris Messina) and his friends at a birthday party he’s throwing for his wife Susan (Katie Aselton).  Like a virus, soon they too are consumed by the same feeling.  This continues.  That’s the story.

Some readers may notice a similar preoccupation with how death spreads with esteemed titles like The Ring and It Follows. Those films are infinitely more interesting.  She Dies Tomorrow is burdened with a very low budget aesthetic.  The focus shifts from one character to another so we are introduced to several sullen types.  The personalities all suffer from an overwhelming sense of ennui and are largely depressing.  Everyone acts in a very naturalistic style without any concern for advancing the plot.  Knowledgeable fans may recognize actors Chris Messina, Josh Lucas, and Michelle Rodriguez who all appear in brief cameos, so I guess director Amy Seimetz must have called in a few favors.

Given the fact that not much of anything happens, conversation and mood are the whole point.  These are successful souls agonizing over a self-centered existential crisis.  People whine about insignificant problems they have intellectually created within their minds.  These thoughts have caused Amy to drink.  She also has just moved into a new home.  Poor thing!  She replays an oppressive version of Mozart’s “Lacrimosa (Reprise)” by Mondo Boys on a record player.  Yes, a vinyl record so she’s a privileged hipster.  She plays it over and over again to the point of irritation.  The characters mumble their dialogue.  Much of the script feels improvised.  Hallucinogenic flashing lights and overbearing sound design attempt to add interest.  Unfortunately, while the idea of death escalates, there’s no explanation as to why any of this is happening.  No resolution either.  Inexplicably, critical reaction has been positive.  I was completely bored by the entire affair.  When I wasn’t disinterested, I was slightly amused.  At times the production is so ostentatiously experimental, it borders on parody.   Despite the laughs, the experience was mostly tedious.

07-22-20

The Rental

Posted in Horror, Thriller with tags on July 30, 2020 by Mark Hobin

rentalSTARS4You’ll reconsider the next time you decide to stay at an Airbnb after watching The Rental.  I mean when you think about it, moving into a stranger’s abode, even if only for a few days, is awkward.  It’s an intimate experience that requires trust.  This portrait presents insidious behaviors I may never shake.  But isn’t that what effective horror does?  Introduce fears that now haunt you.  I mean Hitchcock made the simple act of taking a shower scary.  2020 has had no shortage of horror films and wouldn’t ya know it.  This is a review for yet another.  Don’t write this off as an average release from the genre.  This one is quite good.

Our tale concerns two couples vacationing together for a weekend.  There’s Charlie (Dan Stevens) and his wife Michelle (Alison Brie) and then there’s Josh (Jeremy Allen White) and his girlfriend Mina (Sheila Vand). Josh and Charlie are brothers.  Mina and Charlie are business partners.  It sounds a little convoluted but as developments unfold, the relationships feel organic.  The connections help explain the familiarity that everyone has with each other.

The “rental” of the title refers to a glorious ocean view estate along the Oregon Coast.  The property is available to rent for anyone looking to get away.  Well, actually Mina’s application to lodge there is denied until Charlie’s is approved.  Did the fact that her full name is Mina Mohammadi have anything to do with that?  The group wonders.  That’s the first, but certainly not the last, disconcerting situation our foursome encounters.  Josh insists on bringing his bulldog even though there is a distinct no-pets rule.  That doesn’t bode well either.  Upon arrival at the house, they meet their host, a good ol’ boy named Taylor (Toby Huss).  The creepy passive-aggressive conversation they have with him has unsettling undercurrents that set the tone for their stay.

The Rental is the directorial debut from actor Dave Franco (21 Jump Street, Now You See Me) and it is a surprisingly assured and accomplished effort.  Beautifully filmed, effectively acted, and well-plotted ….up to a point.  This horror saga is an efficient 88 minutes.  I dare say the first two-thirds had me thinking this was more of a psychological thriller along the lines of something Hitchcock might do.  A lot of the credit must also go to the king of mumblecore Joe Swanberg (Drinking Buddies) who brings his talent for natural dialogue to the screenplay he co-wrote with Dave Franco.  An interesting schism is introduced after a disagreement arises over whether to take recreational drugs that first evening.

The cracks that exist within their respective relationships underscore the subsequent events.  College dropout Josh has already expressed reservations that he feels he isn’t good enough for wildly successful tech entrepreneur Mina.  These thoughts weigh on his mind.  Co-workers Charlie and Mina are back at the mansion dealing with a hangover from the previous night.  Meanwhile, Josh and Michelle have a deep discussion while the two are out walking together in the woods that same morning.  Josh drops some revelations.  Michelle begins to doubt Charlie’s faithfulness after being confronted with a disturbing pattern in his past relationships.

The Rental holds a brilliant set-up that could have gone any number of ways.  I must tread lightly for fear of spoilers but the uneasy feelings are further compounded by a shocking discovery they make on the property they are renting.  Unfortunately, the end isn’t — shall we say — as intellectually sophisticated as the beginning.  In fact, the narrative devolves into a completely different film.  I admit I enjoyed both of them.  What ultimately happens is still exciting.  Just a wee bit anticlimactic after the impressive setup I relished before.