The Rental: Dave Franco’s First Directorial Jump Into Horror

With cinemas around the world struggling to keep the doors open all eyes have turned to drive-in theaters and video-on-demand releases.  As we all know, drive-in theaters have always been the ideal backdrop for awkward first dates, sharing mustard with strangers, and horror movies.  Thanks to recent progress in the VOD world more people are also discovering the joys of watching new releases at home.  Earlier this year, The Wretched and The Relic found success after winning over early drive-in and VOD audiences, proving that even when the entire world is on fire, the horror genre will never die.  If you had asked anyone a few months ago to predict the #1 film at the box office in July, I don’t think you would’ve heard a single person suggest The Rental.  But here we are.  Nobody can predict what 2020 will do next.

I’m a sucker for bad movies, so when I first heard about a modern-day slasher directed by Dave Franco I already knew I was going to be all-in.  I thought, best-case scenario, that it might end up being another Get Out, but more realistically I was hoping that Dave Franco’s time with Tommy Wisseau on the set of The Disaster Artist would set him up for an absolute wreck of a directorial debut.  What we actually got fell somewhere in the middle, which may have been for the best.

The set-up is like hundreds of movies that you have already seen:  two couples on a romantic getaway to a remote location that seems just a little bit too secluded to be safe.  A creepy neighbor that shows up early in the movie and inspires the first sense of danger for the group.  Sexual tensions that slowly build creating both chaos and comedy.  Finally, the ever-crucial stash of drugs to really set things off.

The Rental takes all of the stereotypes from ’80s slashers, amplifies them, modernizes them, and then throws them right back in your face.  Sometimes the nods to specific horror classics were done beautifully, but unfortunately there were a few attempts that didn’t quite land.

I’ll start with the positives.  I immediately felt at home the moment that the movie started rolling.  Everything about the characters reminded me of my favorite parts at the beginning of every ’80s slasher.  A few dumb jokes thrown back and forth, quick flirtatious glances to hint at future tensions, and a few hamfisted lines to really drive home the point that the two leading men are BROTHERS.  I may have laughed out loud at the third use of “bro” within two minutes of dialogue, but at the same time it felt reminiscent of conversations that I may have heard from the back of a van on the way to Camp Crystal Lake.

I absolutely loved that the most intense scenes focused so minimally on the antagonist.  I will never forget the first time that I watched Halloween and saw Michael Myers standing behind hanging laundry.  The Rental certainly doesn’t produce the exact same emotional response, but I would be lying if I said that my heart rate didn’t jump from a few out-of-focus images of a masked man just…lurking.

The climax of the film confused me initially.  Not because of any dense plot points, but because I genuinely couldn’t tell if I was loving every second of what I was watching or if it was all too corny to take seriously.  It all started with a shot of the killer walking slowly after a sprinting Mina (Shelly Vand).  A smile came to my face; it was impossible to ignore the callback to a similarly masked man slowly pursuing his target.  My smile quickly turned to laughter because the following shot shows the killer absolutely booking it with perfect Olympic sprinting form.  Without giving anything away, I will just say that the speed of the character and the time that it takes for him to catch up to Mina doesn’t quite line up very well.

Franco also replaced the classic bag of weed/beer stash trope with ecstasy.  It definitely isn’t wrong to think that audiences in 2020 need something a little more shocking to get them excited anymore, but the film began to feel a little too much like an after school special at this point.  Fortunately, the ecstasy element paved the way for the best moments of Alison Brie’s performance.

Finally, I have to bring up what might be The Rental’s weakest callback to a horror classic.  About halfway through the movie, there is a shower scene that just has to be an allusion to Psycho.  Maybe.  I’ve rewatched the scene a few times now just because I genuinely can’t tell if it’s an absolutely botched attempt to pay homage to the iconic murder scene or if it’s just a strange, out-of-place, almost soap opera-esque sex scene.  There is absolutely no other moment that looks even remotely similar to this bizarre ten seconds of the film.  This was definitely where The Rental got away from me a little bit.  In my opinion, an extremely pivotal point in a plot should not be overshadowed by a strange sex scene that feels more like a fever dream than anything else.

It took me about a day to fully digest the movie.  At this point, I have decided that I like it, and I may even like it better for being a little bit clunky.  None of the classics are perfect.  In reality, a lot of the classics are pretty awful.  But that’s what gives horror movies their charm.  I don’t always want to go to the theater to see a spotless and polished production.  Sometimes I want to go to the theater after six Busch Lights and completely unplug my brain.  

Overall, I feel like The Rental fulfills its purpose as a modern day slasher.  Dave Franco may not have jumped from comedy to horror quite as smoothly as Jordan Peele, but he did produce something that I believe will be remembered fondly by enough horror fans.  Strong box office results in the middle of a pandemic probably means that there is already a cult group of fans making white face masks and getting ready for the Halloween season.  I like to imagine that somewhere there is a group of middle school friends that are absolutely driving their parents insane by purchasing The Rental on VOD repeatedly and falling in love with the horror genre.  Not every horror film needs to be a homerun.  Some horrors just need to be fun, a quick mental escape from the realities of daily life.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see an announcement for The Rental 2 at some point, and assuming that theaters are open again…you can expect to see me in line with an XL bag of popcorn and a glazed look in my eyes as I prepare to sink into what will certainly be another brain jacuzzi in the form of a well-produced but average slasher flick.

ˆThe Rental is now streaming on Amazon.

Presumed Innocent, 30 Years Later: Revisiting a Forgotten Harrison Ford Classic

Thirty years ago, there was perhaps no bigger movie star in the world than Harrison Ford. Catapulted to fame and fortune by the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises, Ford spent the latter half of the 1980s delivering more subtle, but no-less-charismatic, performances in movies like Witness, Frantic, and Working Girl. The success of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in the summer of 1989 simply cemented his enduring popularity. When audiences saw Harrison Ford’s face on a movie poster, they bought a ticket. Under such favorable circumstances, it’s easy to see why Presumed Innocent became the eighth highest-grossing film of the year after its wide release on July 27, 1990.

Less clear is what has happened between then and now. While Ford’s other 1990s thrillers (including Air Force One, Patriot Games,and Clear and Present Danger) have remained extremely popular, Presumed Innocent seems to have been lost to the sands of cinematic time. It is rarely mentioned in retrospective articles about Ford’s career, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find it on any top 10 list focused on Ford’s filmography. This certainly cannot be attributed to its lack of quality. On the contrary, contemporary critics were highly impressed by the film, and it currently holds an score of 87% on Rotten Tomatoes. How can we account for its almost complete absence from the popular consciousness on its 30th anniversary?

At first glance, Presumed Innocent may appear quite similar to another Harrison Ford film, the celebrated 1993 thriller The Fugitive. The setups are essentially the same:  a respected professional is accused of a heinous murder and must fight to prove his innocence and find the real killer. In both films, Ford’s protagonist finds himself surrounded by many characters who believe his innocence, as well as some who are convinced of his guilt. But Dr. Richard Kimble, the titular Fugitive, chooses to fight for his freedom while on the run from federal agents. In contrast, prosecutor Rusty Sabich (the protagonist of Presumed Innocent) has no choice but to pursue truth and justice in a court of law. He’s smart, but he’s no heart surgeon. He’s desperate, but he doesn’t try to evade the police. He doesn’t disappear into a parade crowd or jump into a raging dam or confront the real murderer at some public event in the most dramatic fashion. He doesn’t even give any big climactic speech at his own trial. He must rely on others, primarily his defense attorney and a sympathetic detective, to secure his freedom.

Perhaps it is this relative lack of agency that has caused audiences to forget Ford’s role as Rusty Sabich. Whereas Indiana Jones and Dr. Richard Kimble and Jack Ryan are men of action, who take matters into their own hands, Sabich is a quieter kind of character; less forceful, but certainly more conflicted. Ford’s swaggering confidence, ever-present in other roles, is chiseled away almost immediately in this film, and we are left with a tortured, anxious, and often befuddled central character. I would argue, however, that those moments when Sabich is at his most desperate or anguished reveal Ford’s true strengths as an actor. He’s quiet and scared and flustered because the role demands it, and because there’s an honesty in such a portrayal. Ford is playing a man on trial for the murder of someone close to him, caught up in a horrible situation that threatens to tear his family apart. Of course he’s scared and confused. Nobody could be calm and collected under such circumstances, not even Han Solo. In the case of Presumed Innocent, it is Ford’s honest distress that makes him so compelling.

But there is a darkness in this film that Ford’s other thrillers rarely match, both literally and figuratively. The cinematographer was Gordon Willis, well-known for his willingness to bathe scenes in darkness and shadow, as demonstrated in movies like The Godfather. The director, meanwhile, was Alan J. Pakula, famous for films like Klute, All the President’s Men, and Sophie’s Choice, films unafraid to confront or expose the potential for evil or cruelty or criminality lurking within all of us. We recognize that the potential for evil exists within Rusty Sabich as well. In the opening scenes of Presumed Innocent, it is established that Rusty had an affair with fellow prosecutor Carolyn Polhemus, and throughout the film it is revealed that even after reconciling with his wife, his obsession with Polhemus continued. Even as we root for his acquittal (after all, this is Harrison Ford we’re talking about), we can’t shake the feeling that maybe, just maybe, Sabich really did have something to do with Polhemus’ murder. The horrific crime scene photos and constant reminders of the nature of Polhemus’ injuries don’t help his case. This is a film that lingers on the lurid details, and the mystery contained in those details will keep you guessing until the shocking finale.

Alongside Ford, a brilliant cast of actors fill the supporting roles. Brian Dennehy, famous for his performances in stage productions of Shakespeare’s and Eugene O’Neill’s works, plays an antagonistic district attorney who demands loyalty from his prosecutors but will offer no loyalty in return. Raul Julia is certainly memorable as the defense attorney who may or may not believe Rusty’s innocence. Greta Scacchi is dynamite as Rusty’s coworker and former lover, the tragic victim at the center of the film’s mystery. Most impressive of all is Bonnie Bedelia as Rusty’s wife Barbara. Two years removed from her role as Holly McClane in Die Hard, Bedelia delivers a cleverly low-key performance as a woman haunted by her husband’s infidelity, desperate to keep their family together for the sake of their young son, and silently harboring ambitions of her own. Such incredible costars make Ford’s job as the leading man a lot easier.

Why didn’t this filmbecome another Harrison Ford classic? The incredible success of another early ‘90s thriller might have had something to do with that. The Silence of the Lambs premiered six months after Presumed Innocent, and its shocking mix of violence, psychologically complex characters and dialogue, and tour de force performances by Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins helped propel it to box office success and five Academy Awards. Compared to the ferocious intensity of Lambs, Presumed Innocent seems like a very understated, even tame, crime drama. Perhaps, to audiences of the time, it simply seemed outdated in the wake of Lambs’ success. It wouldn’t be the first time that one impressive film suddenly rendered all of the predecessors in its genre obsolete. Nevertheless, I hope today’s audiences will give Presumed Innocent a second chance after three decades. It may not be Ford’s most glamorous movie, nor his most exciting, but it showcases his quieter strengths as an actor, and its ending packs a powerful punch.

Presumed Innocent is now streaming on HBO Max.

Reviews, Rants, and Ramblings by Two Film-Obsessed Friends.

Movie Reviews

Presumed Innocent, 30 Years Later:  Revisiting A Forgotten Harrison Ford Classic

July 27, 2020

Thirty years ago, there was perhaps no bigger movie star in the world than Harrison Ford. Catapulted to fame and fortune by the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises, Ford spent the latter half of the 1980s delivering more subtle, but no-less-charismatic, performances in movies like Witness, Frantic, and Working Girl. The success of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in the summer of 1989 simply cemented his enduring popularity. When audiences saw Harrison Ford’s face on a movie poster, they bought a ticket. Under such favorable circumstances, it’s easy to see why Presumed Innocent became the eighth highest-grossing film of the year after its wide release on July 27, 1990…

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