Review: Rent-A-Pal (2020)

There’s been no shortage of films looking to wear the skin of 1980s pop culture in recent years. But, while some have told stories that are at home in the warm, comforting bosom of the decade, most have been cynical, nostalgia-bait with as much cultural depth as a Google image search.

Yes, it’s true I probably care about this kind of thing way more than most. And yes, it’s also true that director Jon Stevenson’s debut feature Rent-A-Pal takes place in 1990, but that didn’t stop that familiar feeling of excitement and dread when I looked at the films artwork. Another horror-thriller that uses a VHS After Effects plug-in to drag in the Heathers-quoting hipster crowd? How very.

The movie centres on David (Brian Landis Folkins), a lonely and unfortunate soul trapped in a life focused on caring for his elderly mother Lucile (Kathleen Brady) and very little else. The onset of dementia has made Lucile more than a bit of a handful, and it’s clear her husband’s suicide some years earlier has taken its toll on both her and her son – who has now put his faith (and credit card) in the hands of the ‘Video Rendezvous’ VHS dating agency, in the hope it will allow him to escape the monotony and find love.

But… things aren’t going well. There’s been no interest in David’s awkward video profile and there doesn’t seem like much hope this is going to change. And, during a visit to the agency to shoot a new clip, David stumbles upon a bargain bin VHS tape titled ‘Rent-A-Pal’, which may well provide some kind of analogue answer to his loneliness. The tape promises David his very own home video homie in Andy (Wil Wheaton), someone who’ll listen, understand and be there for him when things get tough. Naturally, David is cynical at first, but curious and desperate enough to give it a go. And, while at first the tape offers exactly what it promises, it doesn’t take long for the relationship between David and Andy to turn sour and become something more sinister.

The idea of a ‘haunted video tape’ is, of course, nothing new. Outside of the Ring franchise, which has pretty efficiently run the concept into the ground with 12 films, two TV shows and even a couple of video games, found footage flicks like The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity and V/H/S have often hinted at the idea that the format has powers beyond just entertainment. This might be capturing lost stories or unseen terrors, or it might even be a deeper connection with the supernatural world. In fact, even as I write this, Variety is reporting Lionsgate has picked up a Seth Rogen produced horror with this exact premise called ‘Video Nasty’ (sigh).

The thing is though, to suggest Rent-A-Pal is just another haunted tape movie would actually be to do it a massive disservice. At its core, this is a wonderful film that explores loneliness, desperation, guilt and so much more. It’s a painfully honest depiction of life as a carer, which openly discusses the frustration and sadness that comes when someones life is ‘put on hold’ to look after a loved one – and what emotional conflicts that this creates within them. That it manages to do all of this, while being powered along by its more horror-centric central premise, is actually very impressive. As is the fact that these two very different elements of the film work so well together to create one cohesive and thrilling whole.

It has to be said though, a lot of the heavy lifting in this is in Brian Landis Folkins’ depiction of David, a deeply troubled but sensitive soul who gives so much and asks for so little. Folkins’ subtle, nuanced performance really grounds the film, forcing you to not only care, but think about the plight of so many others who find themselves in this position. In the film’s most powerful moment, David is asked to reshoot his dating profile and his character just breaks right open – with a monalogue that’s as confident and assuredly delivered as it is affecting. Of course, this particular moment of truth is quickly destroyed, when an unsympathetic cameraman asks him to say it again in just 30 seconds… causing David to stumble through a second take that makes him sound like an actual maniac. It’s a hugely entertaining moment, but one that also exposes the darkly comedic side of the film’s personality which sits in wait and threatens to surface throughout.

But don’t get me wrong, as much as Rent-A-Pal works as a study of loneliness and desperation that somehow manages to be funny in parts, it has just as much going on for it as a genre piece. Wil Wheaton is brilliantly cast as Andy, the creepy screen presence who on the face of it seems very much on David’s side, but is slowly revealed to be a jealous and malevolent force. Initially, as the two struggle to converse, you can’t help but will the dialogue to connect and the relationship to progress. But as the strength of that friendship grows, the possibility of romance is also introduced through Lisa (Amy Rutledge) – and suddenly, it becomes clear what kind of friend Andy actually is. For those who’ve had ‘friends’ in real life who seem only to serve their own needs, or use those around them to suppress their own feelings of inadequacy, it will prove all too familiar.

Triple threat director Jon Stevenson does a remarkable job of carefully pushing the story along from the hard reality of David’s life through to his more fantastical, possibly-supernatural-possibly-psychological relationship with Andy, while exploring the damage toxic friendships can cause. One trick in particular, which involves Andy breaking through the gentle, analogue hiss of VHS into the clear reality of the room, is a lovely touch. Along with a moment that follows a successful first date with Lisa, it also shows that real care and attention that was taken with sound design.

There are plenty of reasons I could say Rent-A-Pal slots into the small category of movies that absolutely justify the deployment of the VHS aesthetic. But when it comes down to it, the simple fact is, this is just a very strong feature debut that has loads to offer. A deeply gratifying psychological thriller with a big analogue heart, Rent-A-Pal will give you pause for thought next time you’re thinking about going up into the loft to blow the dust off your old VCR.

Rent-A-Pal is available on digital download from 16th November and can also be pre-ordered here