The Rental (2020)

When staying at an Airbnb, I always go through this period of unease in the beginning. Being in a stranger’s home/private room always feels a little strange at first, but I always get over it after about like 15 minutes. That’s of course after I check in the closets, under the beds, and behind all the corners to make sure there’s not a psycho waiting to slit my throat. Dave Franco’s directorial debut, The Rental, really taps into that 15 minutes of initial Airbnb fear to the point that it feels disturbingly personal.

The Rental is definitely one of the best horror/thriller films to come out this year. It follows a group of two couples and their short getaway in a fabulous Airbnb rental home. One couple is made up of Charlie (Dan Stevens) and his wife, Michelle (Alison Brie), and the other couple is made up of Charlie’s brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White) and his girlfriend, Mina (Sheila Vand). Once they arrive to the Airbnb, the owner, Taylor (Toby Huss) meets them to hand over the key and go over the house’s amenities. There’s something off about him that everyone seems to pick up on. Mina, who is Muslim, initially requested the booking, and her request was denied by Taylor. Charlie then requested the same rental and was accepted immediately. Mina’s suspicion of Taylor’s racism is confirmed when he makes some racially motivated comments towards her during their arrival. It’s more than obvious that he is not a good guy, but the group tries to ignore that fact since they won’t have to deal with him for too long as he won’t be at the rental for the weekend. As the couples enjoy some recreational drugs and cut loose at the rental, a horrible mistake is made that could ruin the relationships of both couples. It’s soon discovered that this incident was filmed by a camera hidden in a showerhead. This is the point in the film where things go downhill for the group and everything spirals out of control.

I love movies that make me feel like I have everything figured out until some wild plot twist at the very end throws me completely off track. That’s exactly what The Rental does. Who wants to watch a movie that is predictable anyway? There’s just something so unique about the film’s ending that really kept me thinking about it. It annoyed me at first because it left a lot of questions unanswered, but it also gave me the space to make my own assumptions. The ending both makes total sense and doesn’t make sense at all, so prepare yourself for that. Franco has mentioned that he left it intentionally ambiguous because he wants to eventually film a sequel, and I am so down for that.

We are officially in spooky season (and apparently still in an active hurricane season), so The Rental is definitely a good pick if you’re interested in exploring a new horror/thriller film to get yourself in the Halloween spirit.

-Britnee Lombas

The Country Bears (2002)

Imagine if the infamous The Band documentary The Last Waltz was remade as a dramatic film where every actor was created by the animatronic technicians behind the Chuck E. Cheese house band. Now rework that premise into an 88 minute live action Disney comedy and you have the delightfully nightmarish flop The Country Bears from 2002. Much like other blatantly commercial misfires of pop culture past (Mac & Me, Super Mario Bros., Howard the Duck, Monster Trucks, etc.), The Country Bears‘s main draw is the disturbing novelty of its character design, the titular bears. The movie is too short and too ramshackle for the absurdity of its animatronic country musician bears to ever wear off, so every wiggle of their roboticized ears and every flicker in their dead robo-bear eyes registers as a crime against Nature. What distinguishes The Country Bears from other nightmarish misfires of shameless commercialism, however, is that its various goofs & gags can actually be genuinely funny on top of its overall surrealist novelty. Directed by Animaniacs writer (and Pinky & The Brain creator) Peter Hastings, the film is somehow successful as a straightforward kids’ comedy (for the kids who don’t wake up screaming later that evening, at least).

Our protagonist and audience surrogate is a preteen bear robot voiced by Haley Joel Osment, who opens the film asking human parents (including Steven Tobolowsky), “Am I adopted?” over the breakfast table. His human brother, a generic teen bully with early 00s frosted tips, is befuddled that his parents tell a white lie in that moment and that no one seems to care that Beary Barrington is a bear, taking it into his own hands to tell the truth. This inspires Beary to run away from home on a road trip to the concert hall where his all-time favorite band, The Country Bears, used to play regularly. Discovering that the robo-bear version of The Greatful Dead is currently broken up and the concert hall is in danger of being demolished, Beary vows To Get The Band Back Together in order to save the historic space that stands as his bear culture mecca. The plot is mostly a series of set pieces from there as he collects bear musicians voiced by Stephen Root, Toby Huss, Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt (in a disturbing bear form the producers are hoping you’ll find sexually attractive), etc. for the climactic, day-saving concert. Standing in the way of success is a demolition-happy real estate developer played by an especially deranged Christopher Walken and a set of idiot cops tasked with bringing Beary home to his “family.”

Watching these hideous robo-bears play their giant guitars, banjos, and harmonicas, it’s easy to fantasize about how much better this film could be with a punk or metal soundtrack than it is with the lackluster country pop served up here. There is something subversive about dedicating something so visually bizarre to a wholesomely American artform, though, and no matter how bland the music gets, the bears never stop being fascinating to look at, whereas if this film were made in the last five years they’d be rendered in grey mush CGI. As the winking-at-the-audience cameos from unexpected celebrities like Queen Latifah, Wyclef Jean, and Elton John pile up, the movie’s normalized commercial sheen becomes even more bizarre in juxtaposition with its hideous character designs & zany Animaniacs humor. Sped-up bus chases, cops getting beaten senseless by automated car washes, musical arm pit farting, and old lady diner patrons pulling saxophones out of nowhere amount to the logic of a music video or a Saturday morning cartoon, which makes the VH1 Behind the Music-inspired premise all the more ridiculous. The film never pauses long enough to allow you to wonder how this human/bear society functions socially or why Beary Barrington would have a Nine Inch Nails poster on his bedroom wall. The whole thing just barrels through diners, weddings, car washes, dive bars, and music video shoots toward the inevitable, day-saving concert climax. It comes and goes so quickly and with such bizarre enthusiasm that I barely had time to notice that I was constantly smiling throughout.

-Brandon Ledet

The Invitation (2016)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

“There’s something strange going on here and no one is saying anything.”

I may have mentioned once or a thousand times that one of my favorite plot structures is what I’ve dubbed “The Party Out of Bounds”: a story where guests at an initially civil social event stick it out once the party goes awry, held either by force or by free will, despite the very apparent fact that they should just call it a night. There have been a few great examples of Party Out of Bounds films from this year, ranging from the seething personal drama of A Bigger Splash to the go-for-broke absurdist horrors of High-Rise, but the straight-to-Netflix mystery thriller The Invitation feels like it might be the most pure & to-the-point distillation of what makes the formula work I’ve seen all of 2016. Director Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body, Girlfight) & company stage their cruel, eerie mystery at a red wine & old friends dinner party that gets increasingly more disturbing by the minute as the alcohol takes hold & the conversations get morose. The major variation on the traditional Party Out of Bounds story structure in The Invitation is that only one party guest seems to notice the sinister vibes at play as his fellow partiers pass off his terror & concern as mere paranoia. This lends the film a very focused mode of psychological horror sometimes absent from films of its ilk, which makes it a unique watch even if I can boil down its basic premise & gimmick down to a well-worn trope (one that I just happen to be a sucker for).

A man travels with his new girlfriend to an ex’s home for a dinner party with friends he hasn’t seen in two years. As an outsider, his new girlfriend feels the need to overcompensate & break the silence among other party guests, but he remains stoic & pensively surveys a home where he used to live. In his own silent way, our protagonist wrestles with two distinct conflicts: a past trauma that occurred in the home that dissolved his former romance & his past lover’s new life in what appears from the outside to be some kind of sex cult. There’s a hippie niceness to his hosts’ “everything is beautiful” mode of oversexed, dazed gushing that’s eerie in contrast with the darkness their home recalls, made worse by vague platitudes like, “Pain is optional,” and “I am different. I am free. All that useless pain, it’s gone.” The protagonist senses a life-threatening danger disguised as “hospitality”, but stays to see the party through anyway, allowing for dual slow reveals of exactly what past trauma occurred in his host’s home as well as the full scope of the cult-like crowd, known simply as The Invitation, his ex has seemingly become involved with. As the partiers continuously open bottle after bottle of wine & the past gradually seeps in to inform the underlying menace of the present, our audience surrogate struggles to open his fellow guests’ eyes to what he perceives as imminent doom. So much of the satisfaction in these What’s Really Going On Here? plots depends on the strength of the films’ conclusions. The Invitation makes good on the dread of the sex & violence teased & promised throughout, but when & how the hammer falls is up for question for the entire runtime in what feels like a deliberate, sinister ritual carried out by some not-what-they-seem hippies & witnessed only by one observant party guest.

The isolation of the main character’s skepticism makes The Invitation feel just as much like a psychological horror as it does a reverse home invasion thriller (where the victim is invited as a guest to the threatening stranger’s home). With the production value just as cheap as the fictional party’s wine looks expensive, The Invitation has a way of feeling like everything’s happening inside of its protagonist’s head as he works through painful memories in a storied space, as if he’s navigating a nightmare or a session of hypnotherapy. Thankfully, the film goes to a much more interesting & terrifying place than an it-was-all-just-a-dream reveal, but the psychological torment of the film’s nobody-believes-me terror adds a layer of meaning & emotional impact that would be absent without that single-character specificity. Outside a few character actors like Toby Huss & John Carroll Lynch, even the film’s performances can come across a little cheap & artificial, but still function to enhance the way that artificiality informs the film’s psychological torment & nightmare vibes. Details like a focus on the grotesqueries of guests drinking & chewing, the strange talisman of a birthday cake, and the color-coded divisions between the past & present are just as suffocating & confining as the film’s locked doors & barred windows, as they trap  in the mind of a guest at a Party Out of Bounds who just. will. not. leave. The Invitation might not be as formally well-crafted as similar confined space thrillers frpm this year like Green Room & 10 Cloverfield Lane, but its seemingly congenial setting & psychological horror leanings make it a much stranger, more singular experience than those films can sometimes be, however cheaply made.

-Brandon Ledet