Set in 1990, a lonely bachelor named David (Brian Landis Folkins) searches for an escape from the day-to-day drudgery of caring for his aging mother (Kathleen Brady). While seeking a partner through a video dating service, he discovers a strange VHS tape called Rent-A-Pal. Hosted by the charming and charismatic Andy (Wil Wheaton), the tape offers him much-needed company, compassion, and friendship. But, Andy’s friendship comes at a cost, and David desperately struggles to afford the price of admission.
The era of Blockbuster store glory also coincided with those weird interaction VHS boardgames. I had one called “Nightmare” where a Gatekeeper character would give you instructions and yell at you through the screen. It was equal parts hilarious and terrifying. Rent-A-Pal is a 90’s throwback filled with psychological terror that uses the same gimmick to the nth degree. Great stationary camera work and color choices really add the somber nature of our leading man’s state of loneliness at the beginning of the film. 15 minutes of brutally sad setup leads to a seemingly simple but chilling turn in the mood. Enter Wil Wheaton as Andy, David’s Rent-A-Pal. This bargain-bin VHS shows up when David seemingly loses out on the Video-Rendevous match of his dreams. His depression is palpable in Brian Landis Folkins’ performance. But, as someone who watched the degeneration of my own grandmother due to dementia, the heavy emotion is warranted. In an attempt to make himself feel better and out of sheer curiosity, David puts in this mysterious tape and “meets” Andy. A first glance, Andy is open and a really good listener. Lying just beneath the surface are clues of the more sinister. Perhaps it’s the language and mindset of the times, but some of his dialogue is almost like today’s incels. It is downright upsetting. Heightened by the editing, we get pieces of the video as David obsesses at learning its timing so his friendship becomes as real as it can be. To a lonely and socially awkward man, Rent-A-Pal is what the internet has now become to so many. Once he feels his luck changing, David is given the chance to take the girl of his dreams out on a date, but that instant connection is thwarted by Andy. The tension built up by the performances and clever structure creates an intensely ominous feeling. You’re constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop as David’s aggression ramps up and his sanity jumps over the edge. Wheaton brings a kind of brilliance to the film that is to be applauded. He has created a fully fleshed out villain without actually interacting with his co-star… as far as we can tell for sure. There were moments where I found myself staring at the screen longer than maybe I should have, wondering if my mind was playing tricks on me or not. Rent-A-Pal will disturb you. You will want to hit rewind again and again.
Written and directed by Jon Stevenson
Starring: Wil Wheaton (Stand By Me, “Star Trek: The Next Generation”), Brian Landis Folkins (Hoax), Kathleen Brady (“Breaking Bad”)
and Amy Rutledge (Neighbor)
In select theaters and on-demand September 11