Unusual and gripping nineties-set horror/thriller about the need for connection outside of family and what loneliness can do to a person, featuring actors who are worth watching out for in the future.
Rent-A-Pal is odd, no getting away from that. I like and admire odd films, but figured it’s best to warn you: although it’s billed as a horror/thriller, you won’t see either genre here in any form you might expect.
Set in 1990, the film stars Brian Landis Folkins as David, committed to looking after his aging mother full-time, though suffering from loneliness, ennui, and general lack-of-life as a result. He’s been signed up to “Video Rendezvous” for a few months to find a like-minded partner (I used to reply to notices in local papers thirty years ago, but each to their own) and starting to despair over the lack of matches when he discovers a VHS tape called Rent-A-Pal, which he buys out of curiosity.
This is where Wil Wheaton (Star Trek: The Next Generation, etc.) comes in, playing Andy, the friend on David’s basement TV screen. He sits on an armchair, the epitome of innocuous charm, offering company and understanding to his viewer via “interactive” conversation. David is skeptical at first, somewhere between amused and dismissive; but steadily Andy becomes an intriguing outlet for what’s on his mind and certainly more rewarding company than his mother Lucille (Kathleen Brady); she’s there in body, but that’s about all, worsening dementia taking a visible toll. Just as this video outlet develops into an almost mind-altering compulsion, David finally gets a match (Amy Rutledge) on Video Rendezvous, and maintaining all three relationships becomes, well, a horror/thriller.
Written and directed by Jon Stevenson, Rent-A-Pal is as compelling a watch as its subject video. It is easy to expect familiar tropes to appear, such as Andy watching or hypnotizing David via his messages, and that kept me firmly on my toes. Recalling nineties favorites, there is nothing supernatural or sci-fi here, no Ring-style curses or Videodrome-style body horror or cyberpunk. Instead, what we are presented with is a man driven slowly mad by his life, and the words of his video host are a catalyst for that. Horror is a perfect genre for demonstrating the impact of difficult lives and emotions, whether by zooming in on one person, or via abstract means, and Rent-A-Pal gives a blend of both.
Some have seen a message about toxic masculinity in the way Andy’s seemingly casual encouragement changes David’s outlook, especially towards a prospective girlfriend. I don’t see it that way, though: instead, I think it could be the story of anyone in a restricted domestic life, or who feels they are going nowhere, not necessarily anything to do with the male gender. David is suffering a kind of cabin fever, and it has been going on for some years, as he cannot afford to place his mother with a carer so he can go out very often. This is Brian Landis Folkins’ first major lead role and it could have been written for him: he is utterly sympathetic from the start, showing frustration with his singleness and with his mother, hurting when she forgets his father is no longer around.
1990 is a perfect time for Rent-A-Pal, before the popularity of dating apps or even the Usenet, but while technology in other forms still had a growing grip on Western culture. The film is very firmly set in 1990, and I didn’t once have any doubt that that was the period I was watching: the people, clothes, phones, sets; everything was spot on. Also spot-on was the minor actor who impressed me just as much as Folkins: Kathleen Brady had only played one small role before and this role of Lucille, slowly and unpredictably losing her marbles was incredibly effective. She crumpled when reality accosted her, she yelled when she couldn’t understand and she was determined to be independent, even when it’s clear that time has passed. Dementia must very be difficult to portray, but Brady’s portrayal of David’s mother came across as very real to me, as much as Glenda Jackson in Elizabeth is Missing.
Rent-A-Pal had its European premiere at Grimmfest, October 2020.
Alix has been writing for Ready Steady Cut since November 2017. They cover a wide variety, including genre festivals, and especially appreciates wit and representation on screen.