Wil Wheaton stars in Jon Stevenson's chilling and pertinent indie horror
Written by Tamsin Cleary
Amidst the lockdowns of 2020, many of us have grown accustomed to a socially distanced, digitally-mediated form of friendship as our primary source of COVID-friendly company. This "new normal" served as the backdrop for Rob Savage’s Zoom-based shocker Host and is again poignantly reflected (albeit inadvertently) in Jon Stevenson’s Rent-A-Pal. The film follows David (Brian Landis Folkins), a lonely bachelor who finds an unlikely source of companionship in a mysterious “Rent-a-Pal” VHS tape. Said tape features Andy (Wil Wheaton), an unnervingly chipper virtual buddy who conducts one half of an increasingly personal conversation. This bizarre simulacrum of an intimate friendship is at first a source of solace for David, then an addiction, before finally becoming something much darker.
Despite being a 1990s period piece shot well before the global pandemic had descended upon us, Rent-A-Pal is a film that feels indelibly of this particular moment; not just in the way that David and Andy’s “talks” eerily resemble stuttering video calls, or in its palpable sense of claustrophobia and isolation, but also in its unflinching depiction of an aggrieved “incel” mind-set. David is ostensibly a nice guy: he’s shy, polite, a hopeless romantic, and a tireless live-in carer to his ailing mother. But like many of the self-described “nice guys” who gather in the internet’s darkest corners, there’s a fury beneath his placid surface. What appears to unlock this latent rage in our hero is the smiling spectre on his TV screen (a genuinely chilling turn from Wheaton), who seems hellbent on stoking David’s resentments and giving new form to his anger. This process of cultivating and bolstering toxic masculinity so closely resembles the cult-like practices of incel and MGTOW (Men Going Their Own Way) communities as to render the story genuinely subversive.
The question of whether or not Andy and the tape he inhabits are somehow supernatural or just a manifestation of David’s psyche is left ambiguous, a choice that feels non-committal yet intriguingly open-ended. As good as Wheaton is as the titular pal, it is Folkins’ performance that acts as the transfixing central point. His portrayal of David is textured, lived in, and he really manages to sell the admittedly outlandish premise. The film’s first two thirds offer him ample opportunity to shine, allowing him to chart a surprisingly affecting course for David’s downfall. But the heel turn asked of Folkins in the film’s denouement strains credulity; a rather perfunctory conclusion to a story that is otherwise fairly unpredictable.
All that being said, Rent-A-Pal remains an impressive debut feature from Stevenson. His direction is clear and precise and it never feels like he’s straining against the film’s micro-budget. Like many indie horror films of recent vintage, it’s undeniably nostalgic. This is a film that’s clearly in love with the aesthetic and technology of VHS in the same way that, well, V/H/S (2012) and V/H/S/2 (2013) were. But ultimately, this is not a backward-looking film, at least not entirely. It expresses a healthy cynicism and caution about technology and our relationship to it, but without the thudding obviousness of Netflix-era Black Mirror. Rent-A-Pal feels pertinent but never preachy, an impressive feat that marks Stevenson as a talent to watch.
Rent-A-Pal will be released on Digital Download from November 16. Pre-order here.
Director: Jon Stevenson
Screenwriter: Jon Stevenson
Cast: Wil Wheaton, Brian Landis Folkins, Amy Rutledge
Distributor: Lightbulb Film Distribution
Running Time: 108 mins