It takes a lot of chutzpah to put as much into a film as Jon Stevenson's obviously put into Rent-a-Pal, a radically left-of-center psych horror/thriller in the mold of Repulsion and Mark Hanlon's 1999 Buddy Boy, with a little Videodrome dashed in for extra queasiness.
What I most liked about this film --- and what makes it very unique in the horror genre --- is that it dives unflinchingly into the realism of some very disturbing subjects: loneliness, depression, hopelessness, dementia, but also hits genuine notes of contentment, comfort, true love, redemption and yeah, back to hope, if only briefly. In short, it goes *everywhere*, like any legit character-driven drama, never short-changing or short-cutting despite that it's entire premise revolves around what should be a very tedious gimmick. That can only happen if everyone on cast and crew is at the top of their games, and Rent-a-Pal's band of indie shoestring nomads crush this dark gem with sledgehammer relish.
Brian Landis Folkins is mind-blowing as David Brower, a desperate, terminally isolated basement dweeb with a bad addiction to cheap bourbon, tacky VHS dating service cassettes, and a truckload of toxic childhood scars from abuse suffered at the hands of his now 73-year-old mother, who in the early 1990s is unraveling from the most horrifically realistic portrayal of dementia I've ever seen. Kathleen Brady as Mom brilliantly captures the vivid swerving between reality, fantasy, and incoherence. But Rent-a-Pal is really a showcase for Folkins, who gets more engaging as he gets less verbal, his tortured face a relief map of pain and suffering.
Yeah, everything pretty much sucks for David, although he can't even admit that to anyone, least of all himself. Then he finds "Andy" (Will Wheaton) or actually a bargain bin cut-out video of Andy--- a bizarro dude who looks sorta like a life-size ventriloquist's dummy, complete with creepy sweater vest. Sitting on or near a chair and talking directly to the screen, Andy alternates insincerity with comments that run from patronizing to downright sadistic. At first David is amused, then intrigued, as Andy peers into the screen with his oh-so-interested active listening poses and nods and laughs enthusiastically. Then David starts to talk back, play cards, and offer up his deepest most painful memories to his new video friend.
This is where a lesser movie would have jumped ship and pulled out "the twist" --- as in... Andy is really monitoring David in his home in real time and is in reality a twisted psycho stalker... or.... Andy's video performance is *new* each time David cues up his tape. But no, nothing like this happens in Rent-a-Pal... only a few times does the film veer to the surreal or hallucinogenic. Stevenson seems to understand that would diminish his film's hypnotic spell.
When David finally meets his literal soul-mate (Amy Rutledge in a fragile vivid performance), Folkins has you so wrapped up in David that you're cheering him on, even as you secretly know something REALLY bad is going to happen.
It does, and that's where Rent-a-Pal will lose some people. It actually *is* a horror movie, but one whose role model is more Jeff Dahmer than Michael Myers. It did remind me a lot of Buddy Boy in tone and content, but Rent-a-Pal has much more heart. And that heart only makes it more painful when it's ripped out of you.
Watch at your own risk, but more likely great reward, if you're up for this kind of a dark journey.