David (Brian Landis Folkins), the protagonist of Rent-a-Pal, is the picture of a sadsack loner. He has been the primary caretaker of his long-suffering mother Lucille (Kathleen Brady) since the death-by-suicide of his father, once a jazz pianist of some renown, a decade earlier. Mom has dementia and requires David’s presence pretty much 24 hours a day, often prone to leaving (or trying to leave) their shabby but comfortable home to attend a taping of her late husband’s final performance. For the last few months, David has partaken in the service of Video Roulette. The year is 1990, and the wide world of VHS has gone into the dating arena, matching subscribers by recording videos of their self-introductions and distributing them until they receive calls back.

David has not had much luck in that arena, but this doesn’t stop him from calling and talking to Diane (Adrian Egolf), the inhumanly patient Video Roulette representative, every few days to check on the status of his potential love life. The plot of writer/director/editor Jon Stevenson’s screenplay kicks in with a seemingly innocuous purchase: a tape that gives the film its title. It seems that David, in addition to desiring a companion to take his mind off the care of his mother, would like and is missing a platonic friend of the same gender, too. The tape in question unexpectedly provides just that, with a friendly host in Andy (Wil Wheaton) and a helpful outline for an involved conversation: tell me about your parents, tell me about your love life, what are your ultimate goals, etc.

For a while, Stevenson and, through his (at first) carefully modulated performance, Folkins approach this story as simply a sad one about a guy, with whom it might not be entirely unpleasant to spend time, and the down-on-his-luck nature of the romantic search. Gradually, the tape becomes more than a helpful outline, as Andy’s hosting duties take on sinister undertones, revealing the dark heart of David’s intentions and distancing him from the audience through increasingly distressing baby steps. As the video’s influence tightens its grip, David’s grasp of reality loosens, just in time for the matchmaking company to find his potential soul mate: Lisa (Amy Rutledge) is genuinely sweet, seems to like David for who he is, and also, as a professional caretaker herself, understands the strain David is under.

Eventually, Stevenson’s genre priorities make themselves clear, as the fabric of David’s reality is ripped open for him and everything and everyone become enemies. It’s all in the tape, though the movie can’t decide whether the properties of the tape (despite Wheaton’s slightly off-putting performance) are themselves real or as imagined as everything else. If it’s the former, the movie has trouble communicating that right up to the end, and if it’s the latter, well, the tape was always just a hollow vessel for an empty horror show about a sad man who turns disturbed for no reason other than to shock us. The finale of Rent-a-Pal kind of makes a decision, but because it’s made through a scene of shocking and upsetting violence, it doesn’t mean much, nor does it payoff the set-up in any meaningful way.

After a solid set-up, the film reveals itself to be just an empty horror show
40 %
Rewind and Eject
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