RENT-A-PAL: When Friendship Takes a Horrific Turn

Jon Stevenson’s Rent-A-Pal examines the videotape dating culture of the 1990s in this retro horror film.

The film follows David (Brian Landis Folkins), a lonely single guy taking care of his mother who has dementia. In an effort to find a relationship for himself, he joins Video Rendezvous, a dating service. When 6 months pass, and he has no responses, he finds the Rent-A-Pal tape in a bin next to the register. This one tape advertising endless friendship gives David more than he expected.

Retro Atmosphere

Rent-A-Pal succeeds in its recreating a 90s aesthetic, within the premise of video dating and the style in which the on-screen Rent-A-Pal tape is filmed. The tape, featuring Wil Wheaton as an overly zealous best friend wanting to play Go Fish and talk about your shared mommy issues, is filmed in a way that highlights the imperfections of the VHS format.

It feels in every way like a tape of the time period, and better yet, one made in a lower budget setting. At times, the TV screen David draws close to his chest in uncomfortable hugs, bears different colors and lines showcasing the quality differences that happen when you play a VHS tape.

RENT-A-PAL: When Friendship Takes a Horrific Turn
source: IFC Midnight

Rent-A-Pal perfectly emulates its time period in both style and performance. Folkins’ performance brings the loneliness of living in your mother’s basement to the forefront. We start to care for his character, feeling how much he does for his mother, yet still seeing how his situations might come across to the other daters at Video Rendezvous.

Creepy Tension and Atmosphere

Rent-A-Pal thrives in its moments of tension, coming from the impervious nature of the tape. At first, the tape comes across as harmless, and without changing its script, the use of lighting and sound design makes the nature of the tape shift as David’s psyche feels more and more damaged throughout the film.

RENT-A-PAL: When Friendship Takes a Horrific Turn
source: IFC Midnight

The tape, especially Wil Wheaton’s performance as Andy, gives Rent-A-Pal layers to its horror and drama. The excitement and energy of Wheaton gives Andy a personality that quickly shifts from happy to deranged while the content of the tape remains the same. Slight variations in performance gave the character completely different attitudes throughout the film.

Rent-A-Pal isn’t filled with horror and gore during most of its runtime, but the atmosphere builds until the action becomes more and more deranged and made me wonder just what might happen next, and how far the film is willing to go.

Exploring Relationships Through Horror

David’s relationship with his mother and Lisa (Amy Rutledge), a woman he meets through Video Rendezvous, is put to the test when his focus becomes entirely wrapped up with Andy and his corny jokes and endless adoration.

Rent-A-Pal does a good job of exploring the differences between real relationships and obsessions. David becomes focused solely around his newfound friendship with the man within his TV screen, putting other aspects of his life on hold. He spends less time with his mother. He starts drinking more because Andy wants to have a drink together, and David keeps replaying the tape, sharing these same journeys over and over.

RENT-A-PAL: When Friendship Takes a Horrific Turn
source: IFC Midnight

The film shows how an obsession can change someone and make them forget what they used to care about. In a montage of David rewinding and falling further and further in love with the friendship he has created, he looks less and less healthy as the time progresses.

This adds depth to the character and allows the audience to get insights into his true feelings about the relationship he has with his mother. The budding romance with Lisa offers a nice dissonance for the unhealthy bond he forms with Andy throughout the film. Both dynamics work to create an entertaining and engaging story.

Strength in Performance

Rent-A-Pal features strong performances from its entire cast, especially Brian Landis Folkins and Wil Wheaton, who both give performances highlighting the joy found within the darkness of the characters and scenarios. The innocence of David and Andy paints their more horror-focused scenes with an even darker center. These characters both feel connected to loneliness and how that can give way to darkness and danger.

Both characters feel childlike at moments, and this is utilized to make the moments where everything comes together in creepy and bloody ways feel that much stronger. Rent-A-Pal explores what is hidden underneath the surface of obsession in ways that are relatable and engaging for the audience.


Rent-A-Pal is a well-made 90s time capsule exploring the implications and outcomes of obsession in relationships. The film does a great job of showing how newfound bonds can create neglect to yourself and your past responsibilities. Rent-A-Pal captures the early 90s in a creepy yet retro way bringing to mind a demented version of the self-help and educational tapes of the decade. The film is fun, twisty, and worth a watch.

Does the premise of a horror film connected to videotapes and early versions of dating services intrigue you? What aspects of the 80s and 90s culture would you like to see explored in horror? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Rent-A-Pal releases on September 11th, 2020 in select theaters and VOD. 

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