Written and Directed by Jon Stevenson
Struggling to find a companion through a dating agency, desperate 40 year old David, who cares for and lives with his sick mother, finds solace in Rent-A-Pal; a VHS tape that promises the friendship that he so longingly desires. However, the friendship with Andy, the sole star of Rent-A-Pal, has its consequences.
One of the stand-out movies screened at Grimmfest 2020, Rent-A-Pal is an unconventional horror that will tear at you from every angle, emotionally and mentally. Its story is so entrenched in reality, or what is a reality for so many unheard people in the world, that the hurt is more than just what is seen on the screen before resorting into what you’d expect from a traditional horror thriller movie.
Unlike most other horror movies, Rent-A-Pal has a heart and, for the most part, plays out like more like a drama with comedy and horror elements, if anything else. Set in the 1990’s, well before mainstream use of the internet and decades before the likes of Tinder, the movie is rather a tragic one that echoes the loneliness of a child looking after their parent, especially if they’re the only child with no other support system around them. With very little interaction with the outside world, be it for friendships or relationships, David becomes a vulnerable shell of a human being. Living a solitary existence in his mother’s basement, providing round-the-clock care for his mum undoubtedly takes its toll, particularly when his mother suffers from dementia. Her illness means most of the time she doesn’t realise David is her son, instead mistaking him for her deceased husband Frank or sometimes a complete stranger. Her varying degrees of confusion, from forgetting what she was doing to mistaking her son for someone else and the fear that comes with that, is all too real. David’s struggle to deal with his mother, her problems and perception of reality, in what is essentially a bubble that he’s living in, just seems to amplify the pain and helplessness that much more. It makes you question how you would react if you were in David’s shoes and the overwhelming loneliness he must feel. It’s heart-rending for all parties but especially for David who must live out this life without assistance nor reprieve.
After coming across the Rent-A-Pal videotape at matchmaking company Video Rendezvous, he finds comfort in the isolated interaction between himself and the tape’s star, Andy, played by Wil Wheaton. Sat in an armchair on-screen, Andy is an overly-friendly character with exaggerated responses but still has some wicked and depravity about him as he talks about his own life scandals whilst encouraging the viewer to tell him about their own. This social interaction, even though completely one sided in reality, is the most David’s had in years and he gradually becomes addicted to the tapes, rewinding and fast-forwarding them to sections that are relevant for him at that particular moment. His dependency on the Rent-A-Pal VHS tape for a social connection puts his real life in jeopardy when he finally matches up with a woman through dating agency, Video Rendezvous.
The performances in Rent-A-Pal are outstanding, particularly Brian Landis Folkins as David who carries much of the running time and really conveys the isolation and struggle of his character. He’s complimented by terrific turns from Kathleen Brady as his mother, Lucille, and Amy Rutledge as girlfriend prospect, Lisa, also. Wil Wheaton’s performance as Andy is also a revelation as he enthusiastically plays to the camera as though it was another person, engaging in every word and tale he never actually hears as the VHS virtual friend. He also brings a quietly sinister edge to the character where we think at any moment Andy will display real-time reactions to the interactions with David…maybe we’ve watched too many horrors previously.
Rent-A-Pal is a powerful examination of a person and their psyche, their mental state and how a situation can break a person. Whilst not scary in the traditional sense of the word, the horror is the reality it portrays and the ultimate sadness that comes with that.
Writer and director Jon Dickinson has knocked it out the park in what is his debut movie, and is definitely a filmmaker I will be paying close attention to in the future.