Rent-a-Pal [Grimmfest Review]: Video Killed the Lonely Bachelor
In a time before internet dating and Tinder it was assumed that couples would connect in ‘real world’ situations and would all have lovely meet-cute stories to share with their legions of grandchildren. However, technology to help dating has been around much longer than smartphones, and it began with ‘Video Dating’. Instead of filling in a bio on an app hopeful romantics would stare down the barrel of a camera and recite the most awkward cringe inducing chat up lines anyone could imagine with hopes that their soulmate would view it and request their details. The idea of this off putting form of dating is horrific enough in itself, but in Jon Stevenson’s directorial debut Rent-a-Pal, it is explored further with deep insight and disturbing results.
David (Brian Landis Folkins) is a sweet and unassuming man who lives with, and looks after, his aging mother (Kathleen Brady). She is a full time job to him requiring much of his time and attention as she suffers from dementia. His main source of company is the constant running of the house’s many televisions in the background, keeping him from the empty silence of his current situation and the overt loneliness he is suffering.
David is a deeply sympathetic and hopeful character who it is easy to fall behind. He craves connection and seems to be unable to catch a break. Even in recording his message for the dating video, in which he bears himself completely and is both vulnerable and positive, he is told he has gone over time and must do it again. In trying to repeat his thoughts in this artificial environment he is portrayed as creepy, strange and off putting. It’s incredible how these opening scenes spell out what is to come, how perception will alter the way this character is viewed and how misfortune will lead him down a worrying path.
After having little to no luck whilst searching for his dream woman David comes across a bargain bin tape called ‘Rent-a-Pal’ and decides it’s worth a shot. He pops the tape into the VHS player and gets ready to meet his new best pal. He is not disappointed when Andy (Wil Wheaton), an overzealous Mr Rogers type with the chunky sweaters to match, crackles on to the screen and introduces himself. He asks questions, pauses to listen and even compliments David’s room, looking eagerly around the edges of the TV screen. Unfortunately, it’s just not enough and David still craves a real interaction, one he doesn’t have to rehearse beforehand.
When David finally gets a match he believes his luck has changed. A wonderful woman named Lisa (Amy Rutledge) who adored his tape has requested to meet him. Only problem, he’s forgotten his wallet to pay for the service. The naivety and excitement of David is palpable through the screen and we cheer and hope for him as an audience, which makes every step of misfortune so much more heartbreaking. By the time he returns Lisa has matched with someone else, someone who had their money ready. Video Rendezvous is in the industry of love and the smiles disappear when the money does, they are doing their job, not looking out for the people.
“This is a battle for David’s soul, one that he seems to be losing.”
Dejected from this David delves deeper into his obsession with the bizarre tape and his new friend Andy. He plays the VHS on repeat, perfectly choreographing himself to fit with the questions asked and the length of pause taken by Andy, manufacturing a bond. They do everything good friends should, play games, drink, talk about their personal lives and laugh with, and sometimes at, each other. Who needs women when they have each other?
This toxic friendship between the two becomes dangerous as the film progresses, sinking David to levels unexpected of the quiet and caring man we have witnessed through the beginning of the film. Folkins is entirely believable as a gullible and naive man who is so wrapped in loneliness that any form of interaction is a victory for him, and that makes him the perfect victim of Andy. Wheaton plays this part with sinister glee, his static fuzzed smile is that of a predator luring in a new victim. It becomes easy to forget that he is an image on a screen with no physical threat as he leers, laughs and probes at David’s condition, drawing him into madness. This is a battle for David’s soul, one that he seems to be losing.
The remarkable thing about this film is its ability to creep under the skin and not just horrify but also create sympathy and sorrow. It’s not often that a horror film can bring its audience to tears, but this one hit me emotionally. I found myself silently sniffling through some of its most affecting scenes, something that a horror film hasn’t done to me since a previous years Grimmfest screening of Tigers Are Not Afraid. As David does his best to take care of his mother there are some touching moments of connection between the two, but these are also juxtaposed with eerie and disturbing scenes of cruelty. Circumstances escalate, jealousy and anger surges with emotions rising and distorting throughout until the explosive finale.
As the writer, director, producer and editor Stevenson wears many hats for this film and pulls each one off superbly. His story is a mixture of terror and dejection, building hope for a character in one scene and crushing it brutally in the next. Through montage editing we watch David’s descent into despair and toxicity, all lit beautifully with the glow of a television screen. The aesthetic is 90’s but the message of isolation and the lure of connection, even if it’s dangerous, is very modern. Rent-a-Pal is a dark, and yet comic, journey into the psychology of a lonely manipulated man drawn in by technology and driven to breaking point, and as a feature debut it promises great things from this multi talented creator.