James Jay Edwards reviews Rent-A-Pal, a niche horror film written and directed by Jon Stevenson and starring Brian Landis Folkins and Wil Wheaton. (IFC Midnight)
A subgenre of horror exists that is composed of movies with premises that are so weird that they end up being creepy. Motivational Growth is about a guy who gets life advice from a patch of mold in his bathroom. Dave Made a Maze is about a guy who builds an enormous cardboard fort in his living room. Rent-A-Pal, about a guy who makes friends with a VHS cassette, falls squarely into this category.
Rent-A-Pal is about a lonely middle-aged man named David (Hoax’s Brian Landis Folkins) who is tasked with caring for his elderly, dementia-suffering mother. After a few bumbling and stumbling attempts at video dating, he comes across a videocassette called Rent-A-Pal and decides to pop it into his VCR. The tape contains footage of a friendly, charismatic fellow named Andy (Wil Wheaton from Star Trek: The Next Generation) who interacts with the watcher. After a while, David becomes more and more infatuated with the video … and the man in it. The lines between real life and fantasy blur when Andy starts having influence over David’s daily actions.
(Rent-A-Pal, theatrical release poster, IFC Midnight)
The first feature-length film from cinematographer-turned-writer/director Jon Stevenson, Rent-A-Pal is one of those movies that, at first, seems like a comedy. It’s not that it treats its subject lightly at all, only that the subject of a man making friends with another man on a TV screen is ludicrous. It’s only when the psychological implications of the story manifest into real-life actions that the movie takes a disturbing turn into Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer territory.
Stevenson found his inspiration for Rent-A-Pal in a real-life video tape he stumbled across called Rent-A-Friend. Captivated by the fact that such a tape existed, Stevenson started to explore what kind of lonely person would resort to looking for companionship from a video cassette. And that’s where Rent-A-Pal, along with the strange relationship between David and Andy, was born.
(Rent-A-Pal, IFC Midnight)
Although it purports to be set in 1990, Rent-A-Pal feels like it’s set earlier in the eighties, and that’s part of what makes it immediately charming. Retro-nerds will love seeing tube television sets and top-loading VCRs, and David’s social life of video dating and roller skating is pure eighties schlock. David lives in his mother’s basement, and the whole house has that untouched messy museum vibe to it. It’s a time capsule of a more innocent time. More innocent, at least, until the movie gets too sinister to turn back.
During production, Wil Wheaton’s scenes as Andy were shot away from the rest of the cast, so when David is interacting with Andy, Brian Landis Folkins really is playing against something that can’t act back. He’s acting and reacting with a pre-recorded reel. Andy’s lines are written to be vague enough as to inspire conversation from David, but the generic interaction makes the audience wonder if Andy really has become sentient, or if everything is in David’s head. And it’s a fence that gets hopped several times over the course of the movie. Who is the crazy one, David or Andy? Or both?
(Rent-A-Pal, IFC Midnight)
Although there are moments of levity, Rent-A-Pal is a pretty dark movie. It’s a study of a man so desperate for affection that he will do almost anything to get it. It’s more unsettling than scary, but it definitely fits squarely into the horror genre. It just slips into that quirky, eccentric section of it.