In many ways, home invasion is one of the most outdated horror genres, since it presumes a world where private property, and ownership of the types of houses that pass for normal in Hollywod, is widespread. Paradoxically, one of the things that make home invasion dramas so comforting (potentially) is that they affirm the existence of a home to be invaded, and therefore restored. In the last ten years, directors have tried to reshape the home invasion drama for the present moment. Sometimes this involves starting the film by puncturing the fantasy of home in the first place, or ending on a sufficiently bleak note that home can never be restored, both of which occur in The Strangers and The Strangers: Prey at Night. Another branch of horror film opts for suburban tracts so anonymous that they never quite feel domesticated, as occurs in the Paranormal Activity franchise. And some films, like Sinister, situate us in new houses, or houses that are never quite moved into, or lived-in, meaning there’s no stable domestic space for invasion, or restoration, to resonate properly any more.
The Rental, directed by Dave Franco, and co-written by Franco and Joe Swanberg, takes this gradual devolution of home invasion drama in an intriguing and original direction – Airbnb horror. This is possibly the purest way to reimagine home invasion for the rental market, since Airbnb stays are where renting is both farthest and closest to the experience of home ownership. On the one hand, as an Airbnb user, you’re provided with a much more intimate experience than regular home rental – the whole business depends on the hosts encouraging you to treat their home like it’s your own. You’re also living, for the duration of your stay, amongst their personal objects and furniture, which rarely happens with regular rentals. At the same time, however, very few people could afford to live in an Airbnb for months or years at a time, as occurs with a regular rental, meaning that Airbnb stays are always a somewhat aspirational experience – a glimpse of a higher property bracket, even or especially if that property has only been bought, maintained and furnished for the sake of an Airbnb listing.
Franco takes this premise in intriguing directions, converging it with the fate of what might be called the “cabin drama” in recent years – stories about young people, typically couples, who retreat to a remote location in the woods (or adjacent to the woods), where horror ensues. Once upon a time, cabin dramas were vehicles for straight horror, but in recent years, and in the wake of The Cabin in the Woods, they’ve pivoted more towards middle-class angst. While horror overtones still remain, most cabin dramas are now primarily focused on the decline of middle-class property ownership, producing odd and atonal combinations of horror and angst. Some films, like Gerald’s Game, have managed this combination really well, while others, like The Invitation, descend into a drabness that dampens horror. Overall, mumblecore has been the most successful genre at fusing horror and banality, from Baghead to Queen of Earth, so it makes sense that Swanberg is responsible for part of the vision here.
The biggest issue with this new brand of drab cabin horror is that the middle-class angst tends to flatten and denude the lush sense of space that’s so critical for cabin horror, and the home invasion drama, to flourish. To his credit, Franco addresses this bind right away, as the opening scenes shift between real footage of a house, and Airbnb images of the same house, signalling that we’re going to be poised between spatial depth and flatness, not unlike the way that real estate footage is used in You Should Have Left, which also tackles rental horror. This very alternation, however, is overlaid with an eeriness that recalls the opening credits of The Shining, indicating that Franco intends to use this very devolution of space as a source of horror in and of itself. Franco also establishes his credentials as a director more generally during these opening scenes, staying away from the flashy “auteurism” that plagues most actor-turned-directors, and instead really nailing the silence, calm and quiet needed for space to breathe and ramify – one of the hardest things for a new director to pull off, but one of the most critical when it comes to a home invasion film, or cabin horror film, like the one here.
Those horror overtones allow Franco to spend the first part of the film focusing on middle-class angst without the film as a whole sinking into drabness or blandness. We’re introduced to two couples, Charlie and Michelle, played by Dan Stevens and Alison Brie, and Josh and Mina, played by Jeremy Allen White and Sheila Vand, who have decided to spend a weekend together at a spectacular Airbnb overlooking the sea. The property is sandwiched between cliffs and forests, and looks like it must be worth several million at least, but Charlie and Michelle, in particular, aren’t all that intimidated, since he’s just received the first seed funding for his start-up, and she carries herself with the officious middle-class entitlement and compliance that Brie has become so adept at portraying in the recent part of her career.
More generally, all four of the characters hold and carry themselves with an ineffable middle-class entitlement. It’s there in the way they talk to each other, in their perfectly weighted enunciation of each syllable, but also in their tactful awareness of the silence surrounding each statement, and their willingness to let the quiet cushion their presence and dialogue. All four of them seem to know, intuitively, that they live in a bit of a bubble, even if they can’t quite aspire to owning a property like this Airbnb listing just yet. As the first act proceeds, however, this tactful silence segues into the more brooding hush of the concealed slasher, suggesting a home invader that we sense before we see or hear, and before Franco shifts to eerie shots from his perspective. In effect, the slasher, or home invader, emerges from the aporia in the couples’ conversation – everything that they tactfully choose not to articulate.
These pregnant silences take two forms in the first act, both of which are embedded in the architecture of the Airbnb property. First, Mina takes issue with Taylor, the caretaker, played by Toby Huss, who’s looking after the property while his brother, the owner, works in the city. Mina correctly surmises that Taylor denied her rental request, but approved Charlie’s the same day, because of racial profiling. She resents the way that Taylor talks to her and Michelle as women, and the way he talks to her as a Middle Eatern woman, while she grows suspicious of his tendency to hang around the property, and come and go as he pleases. All Mina’s issues seem legitimate, but none of her white friends are prepared to support her, or even engage with her about it. Instead, they blanket her with a tacit and tactful silence that prevents her confronting Taylor properly, and so subsumes his bigotry back into the rental property. This begs the question – should we continue to stay in an Airbnb if we learn the owner is a bigot?
While this silence emerges at the point of contact with the Airbnb caretaker, the next silence only sinks in in once the couples have made themselves at home. At first, they seem quite distinct as couples, and quite insular in their coupledom, only breaking from each other every now and then to converse with the other duo. As the film proceeds, though, we learn that the situation is more complicated. For one thing, Josh is Charles’ brother, and the two have a complex relationship, since Josh has a pretty rocky past, including some time in prison, while Charles has made it in the IT sector. More pressingly, Mina, Josh’s new girlfriend, is Charles’ long-term business partner, meaning Charles and Mina have a special business relationship of their own that predates Josh’s romantic relationship with Mina. Halfway through the film, Charles and Mina finally sleep together for the first time, in the shower, and this escapade leads on to Mina’s discovery of a camera in the faucet – the first sign they’re being watched.
While these two blind spots in the foursome’s friendship gravitate The Rental towards the middle-class angst of recent cabin films, they ultimately serve to embed the characters even more forcefully within the house, and so contribute to the horror of the film, rather than detracting from it. More bluntly, they release an uneasy energy that syncs up perfectly with the opening scenes in the house, allowing Franco to succinctly capture those first uncanny moments in an Airbnb property before you’ve psychologically remade it in your own image – the short period when you’re acutely aware of being in someone else’s house. That feeling never quite goes away either, since staying in an Airbnb is always a somewhat voyeuristic experience – and there’s something very real about the way the friends snoop around the house for the first couple of scenes. Taylor, the caretaker, acknowledges this voyeurism by leaving a telescope in the living room when they go for a walk along the cliffs, while Michelle fears being seen as “one of those big city peeping toms that people are always talking about.”
Of course, the Airbnb experience is voyeuristic for the property owner too, although in a different kind of way. Part of the eeriness of staying in an Airbnb is knowing that the owner has the key and can technically enter at any time – and that’s if you’re renting the whole property, rather than actually sharing it with the owner. That’s also the situation in a hotel, where a whole crew of workers have access to your room at any time, but it takes on a more personal and pressing intensity in an Airbnb. The four friends seem like seasoned Airbnb users, since they’re all aware of this slight weirdness to the experience, joking about Taylor watching them from afar, even as a series of POV shots suggest that they are indeed being watched, although not necessarily by Taylor. Still, Taylor initially seems like the most likely suspect, especially when Josh discovers a core of rooms that appears to rise up through the middle of the house, only accessible through a security-coded door beneath the foundations.
At first, then, it seems as if Taylor never really left the property, and is still cohabiting with the four friends. This is the first twist of the film, and captures one of the eerie possibilities of Airbnb stays – that every visit is potentially a cohabitated visit, whether you know (or want) it or not. In that sense, The Rental speaks to a recent trend, in true crime literature, towards stories about people who discover other people concealed in their houses, attics and basements for extended periods of time. This has become a major true crime subgenre in recent years, and at its most elaborate involves wholescale surveillance houses and hotels, of which the rental in The Rental initially seems to be a prime example. Not only does Franco capture the inherent strangeness of meeting your Airbnb host, after perusing their house and living amongst their things, but he reverses the normal gaze of Airbnb clients, since now it is the house itself that appears to voyeuristically gaze back, with an uncertain but scary agenda.
Reversing this gaze again proves particularly hard, since while Charles and Mina discover the security camera halfway through, they can’t afford to confront Taylor directly about it, for fear that he’s recorded footage of them sleeping together inside it. In the same way, Michelle can’t ask Taylor for help when their dog goes missing, since this would mean acknowledging that they brought a dog in the first place. In both situations, but especially the first, suspecting Taylor of surveillance doesn’t immediately put an end to that surveillance. Instead, it intensifies the reciprocal surveillance of the Airbnb owner-client relationship to an uncanny degree, creating a ballooning echo chamber of gazes that get exponentially creepy as it goes. The more watching and waiting there is, the more the middle-class angst, and the tacit silence between the couples, turns into a space that seems to be waiting for a slasher, or a space that has been engineered by a slasher – especially once Taylor dies and the surveillance continues.
This is the second great twist of the film – that the surveiller wasn’t Taylor, the property caretaker, but another anonymous figure somewhere out in the dark. The next logical person is Taylor’s brother, the property owner, who is supposedly still in the city – and in a more conventional horror film he would indeed be the perpetrator. While that possibility isn’t initially discounted, it seems more and more unlikely, as we start to follow a roving invader, or slasher, who stalks down the friends in a grotesque mask and murders them one by one. Rather than operating through the core of the house, which turns out to be a red herring, this slasher uses a mobile surveillance system that requires him to stay within a certain radius. In a modern update on When a Stranger Calls, the calls here are not coming from inside the house, from a property owner, but from somewhere and someone just adjacent to the house.
This immediately raises intriguing questions about the precise nature of this slasher. Obviously, they have some intimacy or familiarity with the property, since they’ve installed a variety of surveillance devices, and appear to know its layout and setup intimately. They also have the mobile numbers of each of the four friends, so they must be affiliated with Airbnb in some way. At the same time, however, they can’t have any tradititional or permanent connection to the property, since that would get them caught pretty quickly – unless, of course, this is a one-off killing, which doesn’t seem likely from their supreme assurance and confidence. We’re left, then, with a murder that seems somewhere between a spree killing and a serial killing, by a perpetrator who seems poised somewhere between home ownership and the more adjacent space that the majority of property dwellers occupy in America today.
That tension between serial and one-off experience mirrors the odd structure of Airbnb itself. On Airbnb, users engage with the site frequently, in a serial way, and yet each house they rent is a unique setting. And it’s this tension that this latter-day, rental-oriented slasher enacts, as we discover in the closing scene, and then the closing credits, which finally bring the film’s last and best twist to fruition. For it turns out that the killer here isn’t a property owner, or a property caretaker, but a previous renter, who uses killing as a way of taking control of each property, and claiming it as his own. He does this by killing other tenants, and so signalling himself as something other than a tenant – although the act of killing seems secondary to the process of preparing the house for the murder spree. In a chilling montage sequence, we see him case out the next property, and install a variety of surveillance devices, before sitting back in an armchair, and looking out over his domain, glimpsing his ideal of home ownership.
In traditional slasher films, socipathy was presented as an extension of property. Just as the ultimate flex was killing people inside your own property in self-defence, so the ultimate slasher move was killing people inside their own properties, and taking psychic ownership of those properties in the process. By the time we get to the denuded real estate market of The Rental, that slasher, or home invader, has resorted to murdering tenants to differentiate himself as a property owner, even if he can only experience ownership in the most fleeting of moments. It’s no longer the individual, surveillant gaze of the property owner, but the a accumulated, sousveillant gaze of all previous tenants, that makes Airbnb so terrifying here – terrifying enough that it’s turned me off Airbnbs for the near future, even when Covid ends.