Set in 1990 and influenced by the moment when direct-to-VHS schlock met cheap synthesisers, Rent-A-Pal actually takes its inspiration from a point further back in time, when The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone put high-concept sci-fi, often with a twist, on primetime TV.
It’s a four-hander, with Brian Landis Folkins playing David, a 40-year-old sad sack whose life is dominated by the fact that he’s his demented mother’s carer. Since he barely leaves the house, he has no girlfriend, which is why he’s half-heartedly signed up to Video Rendezvous – you choose the woman you like from a tape full of pitches made by female lonely hearts – the sort of outfit that used to exist before swiping right became a thing.
After picking up a stray tape called Rent-A-Pal in the bargain bucket at Video Rendezvous, David puts it on at home, and up on his screen pops Andy (Wil Wheaton), a guy offering the pal-experience on VHS.
Andy chats away generically, leaving pauses for whoever’s watching to interact. In spite of himself David finds himself joining in, and, in a plausible way, Andy’s boilerplate script starts leaning ever so slightly (yet deniably) David-wards. Brilliant writing.
And off we go down the rabbit hole, the relationship between actual living breathing human David and video-recording Andy seeming to develop organically, thanks to David’s selective use of fast-forward and rewind buttons to create a scratch-video cut-up of Andy, which can respond to a variety of David-focused interchanges, and aided by David’s prodigious consumption of alcohol and a similar thirst for companionship.
Upstairs in the main house, meanwhile, is Lucille, David’s demented mother, a harridan brought low by Alzheimer’s, who can still manage a foul-mouthed tirade now and again, played by Kathleen Brady at an almost sacrificial level of warts-and-all-ness.
Fourth member of this team is the excellent Amy Rutledge as Lisa, the warm-hearted, fun-loving and forgiving woman Video Rendezvous, almost in spite of themselves, eventually hook David up with.
In the way of these Outer Limits-style fantasies, Andy might be a projection of some pathological aspect of David, he might be a direct read-across to our current world of online “friends” who echo back what we want to hear (and destroy our ability to function in a more omnivorous world as a result), or he might just be what he appears to be – a magically sentient VHS tape.
It’s a great concept which resolves in a climax so dark that I didn’t mind that the whole thing went on just a touch longer than I needed. Wheaton is unnerving as Andy, the sort of “just folks” kind of guy you’d steer clear of if he was your neighbour. And Folkins (who’s also a producer), a stage actor you rarely see in a movie or on TV, was entirely believeable as the dweeby self-destructive David.
Was it shot on old video cameras, just to give it an extra tang of the times? Or has something been done in post-production to give the film a period feel?
Either way, writer/director Jon Stevenson has made a cracking film – his feature debut too – and also demonstrated that Black Mirror showrunner Charlie Brooker isn’t the only one who knows how to loot the Outer Limits/Twilight Zone hoard.
Rent-a-Pal – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2020