(2020) Horror (IFC Midnight) Brian Landis Folkins, Wil Wheaton, Amy Rutledge, Kathleen Brady, Adrian Egolf, Josh Staab, Luke Sorge, Brandon Fryman, Olivia Hendrick, Karin Carr, Sara Woodyard. Directed by Jon Stevenson
Loneliness can do strange things to the human mind. It can be as comfortable as an old friend, but it also gives us the opportunity to twist and turn every life failure that we’ve partaken in. Eventually, loneliness feeds on us much as a vulture that isn’t willing for the carrion to die.
David (Folkins) lives in a small Midwestern town and takes care of his mother (Brady) who is suffering from dementia, often mistaking David for his deceased father. Mom is often nasty to her son, who just seems to take it with a shrug. It’s 1990 and he doesn’t even have online chat rooms for company; mostly he watches old movies with his mom. He has gotten desperate enough to enroll in a video dating service.
This particular one requires their clients to make an introductory video. The “relationship experts” that work at the service then match the tapes up with people with similar interests; if the client wants to view the tape of someone who matches with him, they have to pay for the privilege. It’s lucrative, but you’d never know it from David who doesn’t match up with anybody.
On a trip back to the service to re-record his video as an update, David happens upon a videotape in the bargain bin called “Rent-a-Pal” and takes it and is thus introduced to Andy (Wheaton), a grinning sweater vest-wearing guy who carries on a conversation with pauses so that the viewer can respond. The lonely David is skeptical at first but eventually seizes on this lifeline and begins to converse with Andy, playing the tape night after night after night.
Then, something of a miracle happens – David gets a match, from Lisa (Rutledge), a kind-hearted nurse. The date goes well, and things are suddenly looking up for David. However, Andy isn’t so happy about his friend deserting him for a mere woman; there’s about to be a battle for David’s attention and it’s not going to be pretty.
Loneliness and isolation are particularly on our minds in this age of quarantine, where most of our interactions are done via Zoom and when more and more people who are working from home and sheltering in place by themselves are finding themselves to be more and more suicidal. Just because we’re safe from a coronavirus doesn’t necessarily mean we are safe. Depression is far more insidious and doesn’t respect a mask.
David is one of those big, lumbering schlubs who are awkward both socially and physically. His heart seems to be in the right place but the more the movie wears on, the more we see how wounded his loneliness has made him. Gradually, he begins to descend into madness as he imagines that Andy is talking directly to him and listening to his every confession of failure. For Folkins, it is a masterful performance and one you won’t soon forget.
But as good as Folkins is, Wheaton is just as good and maybe a little bit better. He comes off as a cross between Mister Rogers and Beelzebub and his innocuous sweater vest and disarming grin doesn’t hide the fact that Andy doesn’t like women very much, and isn’t a particularly nice guy. I thought at first this would be like what Wesley Crusher would be like at 40, but that’s not quite accurate; it would be like what Wesley Crusher would be like at 40 if he had completely failed at life and romance.
Stevenson in addition to writing and directing the film also edited it, and he shows some real skills in all three; the editing is masterfully done, often giving the illusion that David is having a different conversation with Andy even though Andy isn’t saying anything different than he usually does. It raises the question in the viewer’s mind if there isn’t something supernatural going on, although what’s going on is clearly mostly in between David’s ears. Stevenson also invokes a strong sense of period, with the videocassettes and utilizing a great score by Jimmy Weber that calls to mind some of John Carpenter’s work.
The final scenes are fairly gory and more of a standard horror film type of thing, which some critics found disappointing after the effective build-up of tension and suspense; I thought that the ending was justifiable and while it is a distinct left turn from the feel of the rest of the movie, it isn’t too far of a change of route.
This is a solid suspense/psychological horror film that relies on two strong actors bringing well-written characters to life. This isn’t a loud, in-your-face kind of terror that you get here, but more of a slow building dread. It’s very effective and worth checking out.
REASONS TO SEE: Nice placement in the 90s. Surprisingly creepy.
REASONS TO AVOID: Could have gone for the gusto a bit more.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some sexual references and violence..
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Folkins previously worked with Stevenson in the horror film Hoax.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/11/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Session 9
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: I Am Woman