Moving image has always been a tool for connection. Whether looking up to a giant-sized figure on a cinema screen or a vlogger on a phone, we find ourselves attached to these characters and pay attention to whatever they have to say. In the case of Rent-a-Pal however, it’s a VHS tape on a small 4:3 screen. Written and directed by Jon Stevenson, Rent-a-Pal is pitched as a retro horror set in 1990 but is in fact a character-focused thriller. The film has some novel ideas that unfortunately don’t all pay off.
David (Brian Landis Folkins) is a genuinely affectionate 40-year old stuck in a bubble of caring for his mother suffering from dementia whilst living in her basement. He longs for companionship and is a valued customer at a video dating service where David rents out VHS tapes of single women talking about themselves and their search for love. Folkins understated performance makes it easy for audiences to sympathise with David- a man who can’t escape from the duties of caring for his ageing mother and is reliant on forming one-sided connections through a TV screen. During a trip to the ‘Video Rendezvous’ service, David spots a particular VHS tape: Rent-a-Pal. This tape is hosted by Andy (Will Wheaton), a charismatic man who offers David much-needed friendship and empathy.
Wheaton does a great job in his role with so many limitations- his character only ever seen sitting in the same chair, on the same set, stuck behind a screen at the mercy of the VHS player. Andy is charming and sympathetic, which reels David in and from there slowly shows his more sinister and creepy motives. The conversational scenes between these two leads are the more exciting aspects of the film. Their first scene together is shot and edited as if it was a normal, in-person conversation, and Andy’s pre-recorded dialogue seems to perfectly react to David’s questions and responses. Like David, you question whether the video flows with the conversation by pure chance, whether something more otherworldly is happening or whether you’re simply going crazy.
During scenes where David is engrossed by a tape, the sound design is put to great use- the crackling, white noise of the audio track fades away during particular lines, making the characters behind David’s TV screen feel more real than they should. Other technical areas, such as editing and shot composition, are good but others fall flat. The production design is great and on-brand for a small, 90’s American town but the cinematography makes the film look like a feature shot in 2020. I just wished there was some grain or even if the filmmakers went as far as shooting the whole thing in a 4:3 ratio.
Although the set-up is really promising, Rent-a-Pal has a slew of problems as the runtime plays on. The scenes set at ‘Video Rendezvous’ evoke those cheesy corporate videos from the ’90s but feel out of place with the serious character-studies on display. David’s character arc is predictable but doesn’t entirely make sense as the film doesn’t provide a satisfying enough reason for some of his choices. The ending, again, is predictable but absolutely ridiculous- and not in a good way. In the end, Rent-a-Pal feels like an overlong episode of Tales From the Crypt that has some tonal issues and a lot of the fun sucked out from it.
Rent-a-Pal is another low-budget feature that has a great concept and interesting thematic ideas but is mired down by writing and tonal issues. It wants to be a horror flick seeped in nostalgia when it in fact works best when it plays into the relationship between a lonely man and an inviting on-screen persona.
Dir: Jon Stevenson
Scr: Jon Stevenson
Prd: Jon Stevenson, Annie Baker, Brian Landis Folkins, Brandon Fryman, Raphael Margules, Robert B. Martin Jr., Jimmy Webber
Cast: Brian Landis Folkins, Will Wheaton, Amy Rutledge, Kathleen Brady
Country: United States
Runtime: 108 minutes
Rent-A-PAL will be available on Digital Download from 16th November and can be pre-ordered here