If you think dating culture is bad now with all its apps, likes and swipes, you should consider yourself lucky that you’re not trying to find someone’s 90s-style: sending out a video profile of yourself on tape and hoping to get a response.
This is the set up which Rent-A-Pal looks to take advantage of, a horror/thriller from writer and director Jon Stevenson that presents a very retro look at the difficulties of loneliness.
The film follows David (Brian Landis Folkins), a man struggling with loneliess and isolation as a result of having to take care of his dementia-stricken mother full time. He attempts to find a romantic partner through a videotape dating service, but to no avail, due to his lack of confidence. In an attempt to find some company, he purchases a VHS tape called ‘Rent-A-Pal’ which features a recorded video of Andy (Will Wheaton), a virtual friend who recites one half of a friendly conversation. But as David finds himself more and more engrossed with his new friend, the relationship takes on a sinister tone.
It’s a scenario that feels right out of a standard B movie horror flick, which the film’s tone is clearly going for. However, what’s most noticeable about Rent-A-Pal is its ability to make you empathize with the lead character. Folkins does a great job of making you support David and feel a genuine sense of sorrow and happiness for his tragedies and successes. Towards the end, as the expected descent into the maelstrom occurs, he squanders some of that goodwill by becoming more of an exaggerated caricature. But, on the whole, the performance is really engaging. The rest of the supporting cast, particularly Wheaton, give strong performances that make you identify with David’s circumstances, but Folkins is who truly shines here.
From a technical standpoint the film is an enjoyable watch, particularly through the editing. The pre-recorded video of Andy is used a lot, but the different clips from the film are repeated in different ways. This provides new meaning, as well as a sense of uncertainty about the true nature of David’s perception of the tape: whether the horror aspects are coming from the tape or from David’s mind. There are also some nice close-ups of the mechanisms of tape recorders and video software, that give the playing of Rent-A-Pal a suitably chilling tone that reinforces the loneliness that David feels.
If I may be allowed to over-analyze for just a moment, the film seems to have some interesting things to say about the cultivation of parasocial relationships. For those unaware, this where someone invests emotional energy into a technology-mediated relationship, where the other person is unaware of their existence. It’s been talked about recently in regards to fans of creators putting too much emotional attachment into their work and treating the real-life person (who they do not know) as though they were a real friend. Perhaps David’s connection to Andy is an interesting example of this. Watching Andy connect to David despite never really knowing him—partly through personal stories, partly through repeated encouragement—and watching David slowly invest emotional energy into the relationship does put me in mind of that theme. Despite the film’s period setting, this is certainly an interesting take on a very contemporary issue.
Rent-A-Pal pitches itself as a horror/thriller flick, but for me, it works best as a tragedy. Watching David attempt to pull himself out of his circumstances only to be pulled back in does create a great deal of sympathy, which is where most of the reactions are created. There are no real moments that elicit fear (and some attempts aren’t delivered in the best way), but it nonetheless succeeds in cultivating an emotional response that keeps you engrossed in the story.
A solid collection of performances and technical know-how are enough to deliver a strong and engaging story in Rent-A-Pal, providing a viewing experience I didn’t fully predict, but certainly enjoyed.
Rent-A-Pal will be released on digital streaming platforms on 16 November.
Words by Mischa Alexander
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