If you hand us a movie, call it horror or thriller, and tell us it was filmed in Colorado, we’re probably going to watch it. If it also happens to feature Wil Wheaton (Wesley Crusher from “Star Trek: The Next Generation”) as the main horror element, we’re even further intrigued. And that’s why we sat down and watched “Rent-A-Pal,” which came out on Sept. 11.
The film, written and directed by Jon Stevenson of Denver-based production company Pretty People Pictures, also stars Brian Landis Folkins, Kathleen Brady, and Amy Rutledge.
Set in 1990, it follows David (Folkins), a lonely, unemployed bachelor who works around the clock as a caregiver to his elderly mother (Brady). He hasn’t given up on meeting people, though, using a VHS-based dating service to in hopes of getting a date. Frustrated with his lack of matches, one day he also takes home a copy of “Rent-A-Pal,” a novelty tape that he finds in the dating service’s bargain bin. When he watches the tape, we’re introduced to Andy (Wheaton), a seemingly Fred Rogers-esque character who engages and befriends the viewer of his video with pre-recorded dialogue.
After several rewatchings, David begins to believe that Andy is actually conversing with him, and Andy’s stories and views take on a mysoginistic bent. When David finally meets Lisa (Rutledge), a woman he’d actually be compatible with through the video service, Andy seems to take offence, trying to drive a wedge into their burgeoning relationship. Bloody chaos ensues.
The film does a fantastic job in creating the depressingly empty world David occupies, and Folkins captures the feeling of a devastatingly isolated but optimistic shut-in perfectly. Perhaps a bit too much so.
During the first two thirds of the movie, its easy to forget you’re watching a horror movie and not just a particularly depressing drama. And when the depression turns into a descent into madness, it does so rather abruptly, giving you whiplash in a way that the previous hour of the movie didn’t really prepare you for. It’s kind of like if “Friday the 13th” spent its first hour developing a sense of dread at Camp Crystal Lake, but nobody died until the last 15 minutes.
This isn’t to say it’s not an entertaining watch. The backdrop of the story and its characters are spot-on, with quirky details that make the film feel far from rote. And Wheaton comes off particularly deranged, especially if all you know him as is the helmsman of the Enterprise and one of the kids from “Stand By Me.”
Despite being set three decades ago, “Rent-A-Pal” seems particularly resonant with the present day. David’s frustratingly unfruitful search for love and acceptance through VHS tapes is a pretty obvious analog for a lack of success on the Tinders and Bumbles of the app world. And his embrace of a champion of toxic masculinity through the same medium echoes the way angry, socially maladapted men find their way into the online incel (“involuntarily celibate”) community today.
“Rent-A-Pal” isn’t the best horror movie we’ve seen, and we don’t foresee it landing on many top 10 lists, but if you stumble across it on a streaming service or at a film festival, it’s certainly worth a watch.