The year is 1992, David (Brian Landis Folkins) is a late-thirty to forty year old man, a frumpy Dilbert-like character, and living at home with his mother (Kathleen Brady) who struggles with dementia. This has become a lonely existence for David, his mother barely knows he’s there, often mistaking him for his late father, living in the basement, and putting all his chips into a video dating service that has returned little results. When a promising suitor shows a bit of interest, David rushes to the dating center, only to find out the interest was for not; But while there, David finds a video called Rent-A-Pal. It’s just a VHS tape of a guy named Andy (Wil Wheaton), sitting in a chair, talking to the screen, and proclaiming to be “your new best friend”.
The direction of where Rent-A-Pal heads may be predictable to some, but what works is the way director Stevenson controls the story. A majority of the horror balances between wondering if the video is possessed, where Andy seems to be personally responding to David’s issues. Is it all just a coincidence? Has David become obsessed with his video friendship? Or maybe it is all just the sad reality that this is how David is coping with his past and present traumas. When David finally has a match in Lisa (Amy Rutledge), it all seems too perfect. She works at a nursing home caring for others. She understands David in a way nobody has. They have a nice date at a roller rink, but the darkness creeps in on David, arriving in a wave of self-destruction, and a conflicting coming to terms with his video friend Andy.
There’s a lot to praise about a low-budget movie like Rent-A-Pal. The success alone lies on director Stevenson, who wrote, edited, and directed the picture. There’s an authentic, worn down 90s look that gives off an authentic vibe, alone with the VHS scenes of Wil Wheaton, which create a clear divide between reality and the supernatural. What does not work, however, is there’s a lack of restraint in the end. Rent-A-Pal goes down a dark path for David, where his loneliness, and self-destruction is painfully depressing. The relationship between David and Lisa is adorable and when you can project where it is all headed, it leaves you with an icky feeling in the pit of your stomach.
The final result of Rent-A-Pal is mixed. The performances by Wheaton, Folkins, and Rutledge are all top-notch; true to their characters. It’s an engaging look at a lonely man and the extremes that people will go to make connections with others. It could be applied to our current scenario of social media obsessions or the loneliness we feel as social distancing pushes us further from interacting in public. It becomes a bitter narrative to swallow. Sometimes the scariest kind of horror movies are the ones that are just too real.
RENT-A-PAL IS AVAILABLE FROM IFC FILMS ON DEMAND AND PLAYING AT THE MUSIC BOX THEATRE THIS WEEKEND
2 ½ STARS
Written by: Leo Brady
September 8th, 2020
STARRING: BRIAN LANDIS FOLKINS; WIL WHEATON; AMY RUTLEDGE
DIRECTED BY: JON STEVENSON
AMovieGuy.com’s RATING: 2 ½ STARS (Out of 4)
In the horror genre, from movie to movie, there’s often a different kind of horror at hand. There’s always gore, jump scares, ghosts possessing a person or home, or the often reliable zombie picture. Some horror can exist in the reality of something simple such as human loneliness. That’s why Jon Stevenson’s film Rent-A-Pal is a unique type of horror narrative because it feels rooted in a reality that audiences can relate to. We’ve all felt alone at some point. We all want a friend and can feel trapped by the circumstances that life has dealt us. Although Rent-A-Pal is not a total success, it is a fascinating exercise of cinema, and left me excited to see what director Jon Stevenson will do next.