Rent-A-Pal: A Cult Film For Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow
While the precise, academic definition is hard to nail down, a pretty good rubric for defining a "cult film" isn’t just that it inspires a small, dedicated following, but that it simultaneously occupies the center of a Venn diagram between offering audiences something singularly bizarre, while also engaging at least part of the cultural zeitgeist. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) is a musical about sexually voracious, cross-dressing space aliens, and it was also one of the first times that queer culture was represented in all of its vibrancy and complexity on the big screen. Pink Flamingos (1972) is a movie in which a drag queen eats dog feces and executes a pair of sex criminals in her backyard after an impromptu press conference, and it was a dialogue with the deepening divide between post-Manson middle America and the youth movement.
See where we're headed here? Cult films are embraced not just because of their strangeness, but because they speak to a particular audience or generation, offering them something at once wholly unique and intimately familiar. Going by this definition, Jon Stevenson's Rent-a-Pal (2020) is destined for cult status. It’s a movie that, for all its familiarity, is nothing quite like anything audiences have seen before, while also speaking to incredibly prescient and pertinent themes of social isolation, the shifting nature of nostalgia, and the human desire to connect with the past while remaining a relevant part of the present.
The setup for Rent-a-Pal will be immediately familiar to anyone who’s consumed genre cinema over the past thirty years. David (Brian Landis Folkins in a star-making performance) is a lonely, middle-aged man caring for his aging mother, Lucille (Kathleen Brady), in early '90s suburbia. While the film never explicitly makes mention of his source of income, Lucille’s advanced dementia and the fact David rarely ventures outside the home seems to imply that he’s collecting enough from her social security (and that of his deceased dad, a semi-successful concert pianist whose absence looms large over the film) to support the both of them, and what little time isn’t spent catering to her needs is spent in his cozy basement apartment, binge-watching old VHS tapes. On the rare occasions he does leave the house, it’s to visit the local video dating service, where David has become something of a sad fixture, returning on a frequent basis to inquire if anyone’s expressed interest in him and investing ever increasing amounts of money to re-record his own introduction in the hopes of finally finding Miss Right.
While David’s romantic aspirations are overwhelmingly unsuccessful, one of his visits does provide him with a novel means of alleviating his melancholy ennui: the dating service also deals in regular home videos and, while perusing the bargain bin one day, David comes across “Rent-a-Pal", one of those weird, pseudo-interactive novelty tapes that had a brief boom in the early 90s*. Curiosity piqued, David purchases the tape and goes home to watch it, finding himself greeted with the cheery visage of Andy (Wil Wheaton), a Mr. Rogers-esque figure who speaks directly to him in soothing, dulcet tones from an eerily under-dressed set.
Though David is initially amused by the generic nature of the questions his new “friend” asks him (his name, hobbies, etc.), he soon finds Andy’s inquiries — as well as his own anecdotes — sympathetically familiar, including tales of a troubled adolescence and strained relationship with his mother that mirror David’s own. As David becomes enamored with the video and begins watching it over and over again, Andy’s presence seemingly grows more malign, despite the content of the tape (almost) never changing; and when someone finally does respond to David’s dating tape — a sweet, similarly introverted professional caretaker named Lisa (Amy Rutledge) — it sets the stage for a uniquely bizarre showdown between mother, son, lover, and video from Hell.
It’s only a mild spoiler, but part of the raw power of Rent-a-Pal is that the movie never provides the viewer with an explanation for anything that happens over the course of its 108-minute runtime. A lesser writer/director would have gone for a pat third-act explanation as to whether Andy is a ghost, demon, figment of David’s imagination, or something else altogether. Instead, Stevenson provides a series of clues, false leads, and bits of information that encourage everyone to come to their own conclusions, with textual evidence for a variety of different explanations.
Even more tantalizing, Stevenson purposefully neglects to draw attention to several key potential leads (many of which aren’t readily apparent on a first watch), allowing the viewer to pick up on them for themselves. Adding to Rent-a-Pal’s cult-potential is that it rewards multiple viewings to look for different clues to try and solve this enigmatic, musty mystery. The importance of a piece of seemingly benign electronics equipment in David’s basement is but one example. While the movie never gives us any long, lingering shots or closeups, the brand name is a potentially vital piece of information for deciphering Andy’s identity. When combined with the film’s uncanny tone, it lends the proceedings an oomph and lingering fascination that would be lacking from your run of the mill horror narrative.
Buttressing this uncanniness are the film’s aesthetics, which tap into the power of nostalgia in an unexpected and subtle way. While '90s nostalgia is slowly supplanting '80s affection as younger Millennials enter their late 20s, Rent-a-Pal is a not a film suffused with hip-hop, neons, and Nick Toons the way a more obvious homage may be. Rather, it’s a film that takes place right on the cusp of the decade, in an iteration of the '90s that’s more readily familiar to Xennials and Gen-Xers — a droll, quiet epoch when the country slipped into a brief recession and it seemed like the good times of the Reagan 80s were coming to an end. It’s an era of soft-lit, floral-print decorated suburban living rooms, ad-hoc basement apartments, lonely local skating rinks, and chunky electronics equipment suffusing every surface.
For anyone who was alive in 1990, the Proustian effect will be astounding, and there’s something of a total-immersion experience to be had watching Rent-a-Pal, in details both big (the aforementioned interior décor) and small (the cups at the skating rink!). In not setting itself closer to the middle of the decade, Stevenson's picture subverts the often escapist nature of nostalgia by taking us back to a less pleasant time that, like the '80s before it, has been fetishized by a generation that only experienced its high-points and never found itself subject to its more barbaric tendencies. While '90s kids may turn up their noses at the homophobic, status-obsessed, ostentatious '80s, it’s easy to forget the all-consuming shallowness and superficiality of the Bush-Clinton years, and the aggressive emphasis placed not only on appearance but sexual promiscuity. If you weren’t stick-thin, blonde, and constantly getting down, you essentially weren’t a person, and society would not-so-politely tell you that to your face.
That superficiality is driven home through the character of David, who — at least initially — subverts expectations in not being the incel creeper you’d expect, given his living situation and literal basement-dweller status. At the outset of Rent-a-Pal, he’s as genuinely likable as anyone could ask for from a friend or romantic partner. Not in that heavy-handed “ain't I such a nice guy” way bro filmmakers are inclined towards when trying to depict a good man, mind you, but in a genuinely decent way. In a genre populated by leches, spooks, and date rapists waiting to happen, David is really just an average schlub, doing his best after having been thrust into unfortunate circumstances, and — based on some of the feedback we get from his videos — it’s apparent the reason for his lack of a romantic partner is (at the very least) nominally superficial. While he’s by no means ugly, he is average — only a few pounds overweight, there’s nothing really wrong with him a better haircut and pair of glasses couldn’t fix.
This is the '90s, though, and David's no Brad Pitt. This is driven home in a heartbreaking moment that stands head-and-shoulders as one of the most powerful scenes in a genre film in recent memory. David re-records his video introduction, laying out his hopes, dreams, fears, and aspirations in a disconcertingly human and vulnerable manner that would win the hearts of almost any lonely woman watching (hell, he had me wanting to ask him out). When the apathetic cameraman casually informs him they have to do another take, David becomes flustered and, while the resulting video isn’t the greatest thing in the world, it’s also made infinitely worse by David’s outward appearance — slightly overweight, sweaty, and nervous, his eyes half-hidden behind the glare of a pair of period-appropriate but unflattering dad glasses. Even more so than today, looks mattered in the 90s, and the juxtaposition of the period trappings with David’s inner light but outer “meh” drives that home. It’s a subtle but effective choice that undercuts the nostalgia factor, letting the audience have its cake and eat it too, only to inform them a few minutes later there was Ex-Lax in the batter.
“Subtle” is a word that likewise describes Wil Wheaton’s tour-de-force performance as Andy, in a role destined to go down alongside Wesley Crusher as one of the most iconic of his career (albeit in a more laudatory fashion). Very rarely does Andy raise his voice, deliver a threatening look, or act in an overtly aggressive manner; all the same, it’s apparent from the first time he appears onscreen that there’s something not quite right with him, a feeling of unease that only amplifies over time. All smiles and cheeriness, on paper, Andy and his program are exactly the sort of thing you’d want to plop your kid in front of for an hour to give yourself a break — an inoffensive, avuncular presence who entertains the viewer with guitar-playing sessions and stories about his family.
In practice, though, Andy’s bad news: a leering, soulless thing with very bad designs for his new friend. What’s most disturbing about Andy and his tape are that — like the broader narrative — they often ask questions that are never answered, and tease the viewer with the promise of disturbing information that’s never offered, leaving the audience to fill in the Dantean blanks for themselves. In one key sequence, Andy’s story of a revenge prank on a girl who humiliated him abruptly pulls back at the last second without letting David (or us) know what happened. And, in what may be the movie's most chilling scene, Andy is interrupted by a ringing telephone, an apparently unexpected event that first frustrates and then angers him, as though some external force has somehow intruded upon his reality. We never learn who’s on the other end of the line, but whoever — or whatever — it is, it’s clear that it’s nothing we want to see.
These instances of overt menace are far and few between, though, which is what gives Andy his insidious pull — a power to worm his way into David’s head and amplify his baser impulses. There’s something unsettlingly familiar about a lonely, basically decent man having his head messed with by a more charismatic yet infinitely more toxic man via an electronic box, and it’s easy to see echoes of the Manosphere its radicalization of socially-isolated, lonely dudes into incels and misogynists. Indeed, the film indicates that, had David never bought that tape, he’d have eventually met Lisa and gone on to have a happy and unremarkable life. However, while under Andy’s influence, David’s previously frustrated but ultimately optimistic worldview becomes angrier and more misanthropic, and by the time the movie reaches its conclusion he’s undergone a Jack Torrance-style transformation into someone completely different than the sweet soul we met at the beginning. In its examination of how a good but troubled man can be corrupted, Rent-a-Pal is, in many ways, the movie that Joker (2019) wanted to be: an examination of how society and its systems can fail its most vulnerable members and push them to previously unthinkable actions.
While Joker wanted to similarly cash in on the nostalgia craze (attempting to emulate a brand of New Hollywood cinema that "they just don't make anymore") while also being something timeless, Rent-a-Pal, largely by accident rather than design, is nostalgic and timely. Despite being shot pre-COVID, it earns its cult-potential relevance by being a movie that could very much be set during the early days of the pandemic. Prior to the picture's second act, David never leaves his house except for essentials (if we can generously count the dating service as an "essential"), and we’re presented with long stretches of time during which the characters do nothing but watch TV and listen to music from within the confines of one of two living rooms, all the while slowly losing their minds — Lucille to Alzheimer’s, David to the toxic influence of the media he’s forced to consume by isolation and despair.
Future viewers could be forgiven for thinking that Rent-a-Pal was explicitly made as a metaphor for self-quarantining in 2020, and how our collective binge-consumption of questionable pop culture led to more than a few people lashing out, albeit via social media rather than physical means (I won’t go so far as to find any parallels between David’s final rampage and the Capitol Insurrection, tempting though it may be). In being a movie about an American loner in 1990, Rent-a-Pal is unexpectedly about America in 2020, and those fascinating parallels will surely enthrall future viewers looking back from the vantage point of an even more distant future.
For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Rent-a-Pal didn’t make as big a splash as it should have. There was COVID, sure, but plenty of other low-budget, auspicious indie horror flicks made a huge impact in '20; most notably Host, which penetrated the broader pop-cultural lexicon. Inexplicably, despite winning best screenplay and best lead actor for Folkins at Manchester’s Grimmfest (where, full disclosure, yours truly was a judge), and despite a slew of glowing reviews from mainstream outlets (Roger Ebert’s Nick Allen gave it 3 ½ stars), you’d be hard pressed to find it on many year-end best-of lists, and even outlets that usually pay credence to under-the-radar stuff like this neglected to give Stevenson's film any mention or award nods. In short, despite being one of the best movies of the year, Rent-a-Pal was, at the same time, one of its most underseen.
Which cements its status as a future cult-film in the making.
2020 was the year that saw films such as Antrum (2018) and Megan is Missing (2011) finally find critical and fan acclaim years after their initial release; meanwhile, both had enjoyed small but loyal followings who’d kept their flame alive, waiting for the day they’d gain the recognition they deserved. Hopefully, one day in the future, Rent-a-Pal will join them; in the meantime, anticipate the underground buzz around it slowly growing until its achieved bona fide cult status, the kind of movie groups of friends will be watching in their own basement rooms for years to come, marveling at the power of its script even as they recoil at its visceral uncanniness and struggle in vain to unlock its dark secrets. It may not be on a chunky black tape one can pop into a VCR, but the feeling of satisfaction when anyone presses “play” will be just as profound.
*For Zoomers and the other uninitiated, it was a briefly a fad to put out roughly hour-long, inexpensively shot videotapes that depicted one or more hosts directly engaging with the viewer, often to teach them some skill such as painting or dance; think of them as the progenitors to YouTube videos.
Preston Fassel is the Managing Editor of Daily Grindhouse and the award winning author of Our Lady of the Inferno.