In Brief: A very original, and a very, very good horror movie.
Click here to watch my interview with the film’s co-stars Wil Wheaton and Brian Landis Folkins and with writer/director Jon Stevenson
I fell in love with horror movies as a kid. My first was The Blob in 1958. I was eight-years old and saw the movie in Pendleton, Oregon. I covered my head with the hood of my coat and hid behind the seat in front of me. Only my eyes were exposed to the screen as the Blob ate this character and that. Then it oozed out of the holes in the projection booth of a movie theater.
I was totally traumatized. The monster was in front of me and — now — even more real in back of me. I was going to be a gonner any second. Life at eight doesn’t get any better than that and I’ve been in love with horror movies ever since.
By the way, the horror films I’m talking about aren’t the Jason, Michael Myers or other baddies of such ilk, or the Saw flick chop-and-slash crap that passes itself off as horror. I’m talking about psychological thrillers. Sometimes they involve traditional monsters like in the original “Alien.” Other times monsters inhabit a human body.
For guilty pleasure, nothing beats a good horror movie.
That’s Rent-A-Pal. It’s pure guilty pleasure. In fact, it’s so good that Jon Stevenson’s written and directed movie is — so far — my favorite movie of the year. Stevenson’s movie is also going to land on my all time favorite horror movie list.
It is that good and that original.
The story is set in 1990. Brian Landis Folkins is David. He’s a lonely bachelor living with his dementia-addled mother. Taking care of mom is a huge burden on David. To relieve the stress and the yawning loneliness that has become his life, David has joined a dating service. Sadly, the guy isn’t all that hot-looking and with an on-camera personality that adds up to zero, David hasn’t generated much interest.
One day while he’s at the dating service office David picks up a VHS tape for a different service called, Rent-A-Pal. He starts watching the video. Andy is the guy on the tape. He’s played by a bearded Wil Wheaton of Star Trek: Next Generation fame. During his monologue on the tape Andy asks rhetorical questions.
David answers them.
As the movie progresses, and as David slips toward madness, the rhetorical questions seem more like real conversation and the conversation gets deeper. Of course, Andy really isn’t conversing with David.
Or is he?
Wheaton recorded Andy’s parts apart from the rest of the cast. The reasoning is that Andy is on tape and while a real person, the on tape Andy cannot have a conversation.
Wheaton — who we mostly know from his positive work as a kid actor in films like Stand by Me and from the Star Trek series — is a surprisingly excellent villain. He’s a handsome guy and his rent-a-pal pitch is all smiles and upbeat. However, Andy has no soul. He is evil. His dialogue is empty and self-serving.
The beauty of Wheaton’s performance is found in the limited amount of space in which he has to operate. He’s in front of a camera. Andy can’t get up and walk around. Nor does he ever personally interact with David.
So Wheaton has to use facial expressions and hand and body gestures to convey that evil. Nothing is over the top. Like the door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman of antiquity, Wheaton underplays Andy and the insincerity oozes from the TV screen.
It’s a wonderful piece of work and a performance that makes the implausible plausible.
Of course, the friendless David never sees the evil. Andy is his friend. While you don’t know this for sure, Andy might be poor pathetic David’s only friend — ever. That leads to the beauty of Folkins’ performance. Like the rest of us, he only sees Andy on a TV screen. The two actors are never in the same room. This allows Folkins to really be David and he plays it perfectly.
Best of all, like Wheaton, Folkins doesn’t overplay the part. It’s like, “Oh-well, I’m just an ordinary guy going mad.”
Plus — and this is where Stevenson’s filmmaking and screenplay is so brilliant — Folkins does a great job of connecting you to David. You can’t help but feel sorry for the guy. Though he’s pretty much dismissed by everybody, David is a really terrific person. He is intelligent, deep and caring, and it’s hard to understand why he has no friends or no life.
Wheaton and Folkins also get good supporting help from Amy Rutledge plays a woman David meets from the dating service and from Kathleen Brady who stars as his disoriented, and sometimes inconsiderate, mother.
Stevenson’s superb script and tightly done movie proves a theory I’ve tossed around for the last three decades. His movie appears to have been done on a shoestring budget. With Rent-A-Pal, Stevenson and his cast and crew demonstrate that you don’t have to spend multi-millions of dollars and pack a film with budget-busting special effects to have a great movie. Quality writing, excellent acting, a few special well-time special effects and a lot of imagination is often all you need.
Don’t rent Andy but do rent Rent-A-Pal. You can find it on a variety of streaming services and in some theaters.
Director: Jon Stevenson
Stars: Wil Wheaton, Brian Landis Folkins, Amy Rutledge, Kathleen Brady
Not rated but likely an R-rating or a hard PG-13 for mature themes and some violence. Though it’s a heavy drama in places and anchored by Wil Wheaton’s excellent villany, horror movies are never more fun than this one. Give this one a 5 on the Friday Flicks with Gary 0 to 5 scale.
Rent-A-Pal can be found in theaters in some parts of the country and for those with no access to theaters, it can be found streaming online on various streaming sources.
Gary Wolcott has been reviewing movies on radio, television and newspaper since 1990. He believes — and this is an estimate only — that he’s seen something close to 10,000 movies in his lifetime. Gary is a lifelong fan of films and catches a couple of hundred movies a year. He believes movies ought to be seen on the big screen and not on the small screen in your living room or family room. While he loves movies, he also says reviewing film can be a real sacrifice and that he sees many movies so you don’t have to.
He is one of KXL 101.1 FM’s film critics and joined the news staff in 2014. Gary is also the film critic for Tri-Cities, Washington’s Tri-City Herald.