When it comes to psychological horror, there is one unwritten but common and maybe even obvious imperative: you have to mess with your audience’s mind. The true horror doesn’t come from a man in a papier-mâché Halloween mask or a creepy-crawly creature from the fifth dimension like you’ll see in other scary movies. It comes from mystery, the feeling that you never have any idea what is actually going on in the film you’re watching, as well as the sense of dread that confusion might entail. So I guess you could say Rent-A-Pal is a pretty good psychological horror — one certainly deserving the genre label.
Directed and written by Jon Stevenson, Rent-A-Pal centers around David (Brian Landis Folkins), an awkward loner in his late 30s who lives in his mother’s basement alone, waiting to find the love of his life. He hopes to find it through a video dating service, the newest craze of the 90s, but it doesn’t seem to be working out for him. One day, after another strikeout, David comes across the mysterious tape “Rent-A-Pal” and takes it home. The tape in question shows Andy (Wil Wheaton), an enigmatic television host who claims he’s only there to be the viewer’s friend and help him through the hardships of daily life.
David’s character is pretty standard for thriller stories like Rent-A-Pal. But while there isn’t anything inherently special about him, Folkins does an incredible job elevating the character to new heights. You genuinely feel bad for David in the beginning. Even before the tape is introduced, the movie takes you on a tour of David’s day-to-day life, which includes watching videos of potential matches through the dating service and taking care of his elderly mother with dementia. By the time the film gets to its namesake, you truly hope that “Rent-A-Pal” can help David out of his funk and shine some light on his life. The movie does this so well actually, that when it does get to the freaky stuff, you almost don’t see it coming. And trust me, this movie definitely gets to the freaky stuff.
Once the atmosphere seems calmer and brighter, and things seem to be looking up for dear old David, the movie reminds us of its true intent. Director Jon Stevenson does this with a handful of handy genre tools: grainy cinematography, a chilling era-appropriate score, and most importantly, an absolutely nerve-wracking host.
There’s something about Andy, something that makes it clear from the jump that “Rent-A-Pal” isn’t your average VHS tape offering virtual friendship, advice, and lifelong companionship. Fitting considering Stevenson based the idea of the film and Andy on an old VHS recording of “Rent-A-Friend” starring host Sam, which he found floating around a Reddit board. And as anyone who’s spent more than a day on the internet knows, nothing good ever comes from browsing Reddit, except for entertaining psycho-thriller story material, of course. Nevertheless, Stevenson’s research, along with Wil Wheaton’s chilling performance pay off, here. Things seem all right, if not a bit unnerving, with “Rent-A-Pal” at first. Andy seems like a real friend to David. But as time goes on, you start to wonder just how much of Andy really is “real” and how much of a “friend” he really is.
The film’s biggest mystery is whether or not Andy and the “Rent-A-Pal” tape are coveting some sort of supernatural or otherworldly force. The film never really confirms this, but it doesn’t say otherwise either. In fact, there’s evidence to suggest that there is more than meets the eye with Andy. There are moments in the film when he says or does something that just doesn’t sit right. Like when he stares directly at David (and sometimes the viewer) for long periods of time, or when the film makes use of Wheaton’s multiple takes, ultimately changing the way the tape says a line of dialogue the next time you hear it. There is a chilling scene where Andy says a couple of lines, David rewinds it, and it almost feels like there’s more time between when Andy says his first line before saying the next. It’s subtle but noticeable.
Scenes like this make it evident that “Rent-A-Pal” is not a normal tape. However, it is also entirely possible that these strange moments in the tape are all in David’s head. Like any other estranged loner in a psychological horror film, David does begin to slowly lose his sanity and begin that long descent into madness. The truth behind the tape is consistently ambiguous, and while this may be frustrating for some viewers who crave closure and might dread a film ending with unresolved issues (myself included), it makes sense given that the film is told from David’s perspective. And while the film’s agenda is to mess with our sense of reason, it becomes increasingly clear that David might have completely lost his as the film goes on.
The final act is as you’d expect, with David losing his marbles and erasing the line between the two “Rent-A-Pals.” It’s a cliche ending, one that is once again taken to new levels thanks to both Folkins and Wheaton’s stunning performances. In the end, you’re not really left wondering how or when things went wrong, but just shocked at how wrong things have gone so far for this guy.
So is Rent-A-Pal a film worth taking home? Well, the film does feel a bit slow at times. This is a problem with a lot of psychological horrors, as the film is trying to set its mysterious, confusing mood and perhaps takes a bit too long to get there. I haven’t even mentioned the leading ladies, Kathleen Brady who portrays David’s mother Lucille, and Amy Rutledge who portrays David’s love interest Lisa. That’s really because the film doesn’t try to do much with them beyond their character bios.
Both Brady and Rutledge do a phenomenal job, but I can’t help but feel like they were a bit wasted in this movie. Especially Rutledge, who despite some incredible acting and heartwarming moments is stuck being just another love interest, the character you know is there solely to make David’s downfall all the more tragic.
Despite some glaring flaws and a familiar premise, Rent-A-Pal is still an incredibly strong indie title. The cast and crew clearly have a deep love and understanding of the genre. Folkins and Wheaton are a chilling pair, and they alone would make this a movie worth renting from your local video store. You know, if that were still a thing.