The Movie Waffler Mike’s Strange Cinema Cavalcade - RENT-A-PAL | The Movie Waffler

Mike’s Strange Cinema Cavalcade - RENT-A-PAL

rentapal review
A lonely man makes a new friend through a sinister videotape.

Review by Mike Vaughn

Directed by: Jon Stevenson

Starring: Brian Landis Folkins, Wil Wheaton, Kathleen Brady, Amy Rutledge

rentapal poster

Little known fact: In the 1990s, if you were lonely and without a friend, there were videos of people pretending to interact with you to keep you company. The actor in said video would sit there, talk to you, then pause and reply back as if they were actually answering you.

First time director Jon Stevenson asks the question: Who is the person that is so isolated that they need a tape like this? The answer will make your skin crawl right off. Meet David (Brian Landis Folkins), a desperately lonely man seeking love. His quest to find that perfect soul mate leads him to get “help” from a parasitic video dating service, but he is striking out. To make matters worse, his days are filled with grief as he takes care of his abusive elderly mother, who suffers from advantaged-stage dementia.

rentapal review

One day while looking at the tape bin at the dating service, he sees a “Rent A Pal” tape and buys it on a whim. Soon, he becomes deeply attached to the “interaction” he gets from this one-sided friendship with Andy (Will Wheaton), his video pal. Things in his life seem to take a turn for the positive when he is matched with Lisa (Amy Rutledge), who is a caregiver and all-round sweet girl. They go out, but it seems David isn’t ready to let go of his pal Andy just yet.

A lot of filmmakers try to re-create that feeling of the ‘80s/early ‘90s video era but I haven’t seen one truly capture the spirit and vibe quite like Stevenson. The film is subtly set in 1990 and while there are pop culture references to the time period, Stevenson doesn’t hit you over the head with them. The world that he creates feels very much grounded in reality. For example, David’s house that he shares with his mother seems incredibly authentic and not just a set. The entire film is rich with little details that further shape the characters and the world they live in.

[ READ MORE: Mike’s Strange Cinema Cavalcade - The New York Ripper ]

The film also does something very clever, which is use the video profile as a simple yet effective way to establish backstory and exposition without it feeling clunky or forced. We also get more backstory when David starts to really open up to his video pal Andy. The information we glean from these conversations help make David feel like a fleshed-out character, and thus, the finale has more of an impact. I seriously felt horrible for the character, which is a mark of how beautifully realised David is written and not to mention acted.

rentapal review

Rent-A-Pal knows when to be creepy and unnerving, but it also is most effective when it allows itself to linger on the understated and quiet moments. Stevenson not only crushes this film with his acute attention to detail, but it’s incredibly shot with moody and evocative camera work as well as thoughtful and well-done editing. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a nice score by Jimmy Weber.

It’s the performances though that, for me, really sold the premise. As David, Folins gives a heartbreaking and complex performance. Wisely, Folkins plays David as dorky, but likeable. It’s important that we see him as semi-relatable, and he nails it. Folkins doesn’t go from zero to unhinged. Rather, we see him slowly come undone, and the journey feels real and not overwrought. Wheaton totally shines as Andy, the videotaped “pal”. He brings that right amount of pep and cheesiness, yet he brings something just slightly sinister bubbling up to the surface. It’s brilliant.

[ READ MORE: New Release Review - Koko-Di Koko-Da ]

One interesting point that Jon brings up is just how exploitative video dating services most likely were and, in a real way, they victimise David just as much as others in his life have. This topic is something I never even considered, let alone have seen in a film.

rentapal review

Rent-A-Pal is the '80s/'90s horror homage that does it right. It doesn’t hit you with film references and name checks like something like Scare Package (2019), but rather offers up a haunting character study with the decade as a backdrop. At a certain point Rent-A-Pal’s tension and dread becomes almost unbearable, and, it feels like helplessly watching a sinking ship.

Stevenson’s low-fi, haunting tale is unique and brilliantly-acted with a finale that made my skin crawl right off. Don’t miss this film!

Rent-A-Pal is in US cinemas/VOD from September 11th. A UK/ROI release has yet to be announced.

Michael Vaughn is a rabid horror and cult fan who turned that love into a career. He is a writer, blogger and film historian and now author of 'The Ultimate Guide to Strange Cinema' which Shock Wave Podcast named their pick of the month, and Chris Alexander of Fangoria called “recommended reading.”

His other credits include Scream Magazine, Fangoria and websites like Films in Review and Bloody Flicks(UK). Please follow his Twitter @StrangeCinema65 and Instagram @gorehound_mike.