If by any chance you’re feeling nostalgic for the days of VHS videotapes, then Rent-A-Pal is here to satisfy that craving. Set in Denver during 1990, VHS video features rather heavily throughout Rent-A-Pal, from the retro font used in the opening titles to the closeups of videotapes being inserted into a VCR, the internal mechanism engaging with the tape as it prepares to play.
The person responsible for firing up the VCR is David (Brian Landis Folkins), who is settling down to view the latest set of video profiles he’s received from dating agency Video Rendezvous, of which he is a member. David lives in the basement flat of his mum’s house, who has dementia. His father died ten years ago, meaning David is now the sole carer for his mother. And David is lonely, painfully lonely. When he calls Video Rendezvous for an update on any profile matches, he’s told that he has still not received any interest from potential partners who have viewed his profile. He is however urged to come into their office and record a new video profile, as his current one is now 6 months old.
When David sits down in front of the camera to record his new profile, he comes across well, showing just how much of a nice guy he is – a caregiver who simply wants the chance to care for a soulmate, sharing life within a loving relationship. You really do feel for him, certain that the genuine sincerity in his video will finally land him the date he so desperately needs and deserves. That is until the cameraman informs him that he has completely overrun the thirty-second limit allocated to male video profiles and that he is going to have to do it again. The shortened version David then delivers under pressure is rushed, with David now coming across as awkward and creepy, and your heart drops, knowing that he’s likely to remain single for a while longer yet. But then, as he’s having his credit card swiped by the dating agency yet again, David notices an interesting VHS sitting in the nearby bargain bin, titled Rent A Pal, and decides to buy it.
Back in his basement, David puts the Rent-A-Pal video into his VCR and presses play. He’s greeted by Andy (Will Wheaton), a cheery-looking man in a colourful knitted tank top. Andy talks of becoming best friends with David, asking him questions and leaving a pause to allow David to answer. Those pauses aren’t always long enough though, resulting in David being cut off mid-sentence, and the responses from Andy don’t always match the answers that David has given him either. But, desperate for a friend, David persists with this strange form of interaction.
We see that after repeat viewings of the tape David has managed to perfect his responses so that the conversation flows between him and Andy as if it were a real-life conversation. There are parts of the video where Andy plays cards with the viewer, takes a selfie with his back to the camera so that the viewer can be in it, and he and David are able to have the kind of deep and meaningful conversations that only two very good friends would have. It’s a rather lengthy and elaborate videotape, with certain sections earning a revisit should David ever feel the need to have a specific conversation about a certain aspect of his life. Eventually, we as the audience begin to wonder how much of this ‘relationship’ is real or imagined, with some of the questions or replies from Andy beginning to sound eerily close to being very specific and personal to David.
In his real life, David finally gets a lucky break with the dating agency, landing a date with Lisa (Amy Rutledge). Lisa also works in the care sector, and she comes across as a very nice person too. Once again you find yourself willing David to do well and thankfully, they do hit it off. But from the moment David brings Lisa down to his basement and you see that somebody is likely to sit on the VCR remote, you just know things are due to take a dark turn.
Watching David as he interacts with Andy for hours on end, day after day is surprisingly riveting. I was completely engrossed in him and his life as I waited and hoped he might catch a break. For much of the movie, I was just mesmerised by the wonderful performances from the entire cast, thoroughly enjoying the believable, likeable characters they portrayed. But, Rent-A-Pal is billed as a horror movie, so when things do eventually take a turn right at the end, we get a fast-paced, gory ending which felt somewhat disappointing, proving to be the weakest aspect of a movie which really did impress me overall.
Rent A PAL will be available on Digital Download from 16th November and can be pre-ordered here