Rent-A-Pal – Review

2020108 MinN/A

1990: David, 40, looks after his dementia mom. He uses a video dating service to no avail. He buys a "Rent-A-Pal" video tape and things change.

Movie Review

Damn! I really need to cut back on reviewing these pseudo-horror movies. I’ve said it before and I will say it again. Either the horror genre has become a lot more broad in scope or movies are being mislabelled as horror. Rent-a-Pal falls directly into this category.

Still, here we are. Rent-a-Pal is appearing in the horror category on streaming sites so let’s take a look. Rent-a-Pal is a 2020 movie written and directed by Jon Stevenson and starring Brian Landis Folkins, Amy Rutledge, and Will Wheaton.

October is Coming – KOween!

It’s almost the spookiest of months. October is also the month where non-horror fans become horror fans. You may also notice that tons of review websites will be running “31 days of Halloween” events. In these events they watch a movie every day for the month of October. Pretty cliched right?

Well, I wanted to be a little different from the other review sites….. But that takes far too much effort so join us for a horror movie review a day for the entirety of October 2022. That’s right, a very unique feature, never done before, leading up to Halloween.

I will be covering a mix of classics, indie movies, and international horror. The reviews will be shorter format than my usual rambling style so feel free to check it out.

Rent-a-Pal (2020)

Rent-a-Pal follows the life of 40-something man David Brower, played by Brian Landis Folkins, and his attempts to overcome his loneliness. David lives at home and cares for his ailing mother Lucille, played by Kathleen Brady, who is suffering from Dementia. Set in the 1990s, David feels trapped and isolated so uses Video Rendezvous, a video dating service, to try and meet women.

For the younger members of the audience, these video dating services were pretty common in the 90s. They worked much like a slow motion version of a dating site. A person submits a video telling the potential date about themselves and their lives. The video dating company would look for compatible matches and pair people up. A lonely heart would be sent tapes for prospective matches, view the tapes and contact the company if they liked what they saw. A date would be arranged by the company and the awkward meeting would commence.

David makes frequent trips to the video dating service to pick up new tapes, searching for potential matches. Having no luck attracting any women, he returns to record a new, more captivating, taped message. While there, David spots a VHS in the discount tape bin. The VHS, Rent-a-Pal, offers the viewer a unique, best friend, experience. Intrigued, David purchases the tape and takes it home.

David from Rent-a-Pal (2020)
David is lonely and somewhat depressed

Introducing Andy

Rent-a-Pal is a video hosted by Andy, played by Will Wheaton. Andy talks to the viewer in a casual, conversational manner. He asks questions and leaves pauses for the viewer to reply to him. This is to simulate the experience of chatting with a friend. Upon watching the video, David feels awkward and reluctant to engage with the host. He turns the video off and goes to bed.

The next morning, David is informed he has a match at Video Rendezvous; a girl called Lisa. David hurries to obtain Lisa’s tape but forgets his wallet. He rushes home to get it but, upon returning to Video Rendezvous, he is told that Lisa matched with someone else while he was away. Depressed, David asks for Lisa’s tape anyway so he can see what he was missing.

When he views Lisa’s tape, it turns out she is a huge fan of Jazz (David’s dad was a Jazz musician), a carer herself, and essentially a perfect match for him. David is heartbroken and turns back to the Rent-a-Pal tape for some virtual companionship. Over the coming days, David becomes more and more obsessed with the tape and with his new friend Andy.

More Slow Paced Kinda-Horror

This is definitely becoming an unintended theme of Knockout Horror. We have reviewed so many slow burn horror movies lately. I always feel the need to point out when a horror is slow burn, as well. Some people are big horror fans but absolutely abhor slow paced horror movies. Rent-a-Pal skirts the line between slow burn horror and “barely a horror at all”.

There is an overarching character drama going on here. David is a troubled and lonely individual with a complicated past. We are watching his life as he slowly unravels. Psychologically tormented, awful things happen to him, but so does a lot of mundane stuff.

David from Rent-a-Pal (2020)
The 90s VHS aesthetic is captured really well

Does a movie like this even count as horror? I do think the overall atmosphere of the film has a horror vibe to it. I actually think it is the final 20 minutes or so that really qualify Rent-a-Pal as a horror movie. Certainly more than some of the movies I have reviewed recently. Traditional horror fans will likely disagree, however, and I can totally get where they are coming from.

An Intriguing Plot

Rent-a-Pal has a very interesting plot and it is very easy to become invested in the events of the story. A fairly compelling cast of characters keep things moving along nicely. There is a dark comedy aspect to the movie, as well, that helps lighten the mood.

David is a character that is very easy to sympathise with. His life is tragically lonely and his situation is one that many people are faced with everyday. The feeling of responsibility that he has for his mother binds him to the home. He does not have any friends or a job and spends his time in his mum’s basement. He is acutely aware of how he must come across as undesirable but will not abandon his mother.

It becomes apparent, later on, that he has always been something of an outcast. A difficult childhood coupled with the suicide of his father has left him vulnerable and delicate. David has seemingly been in a state of depression and loneliness for some time. He is desperate for companionship and someone to understand his life and appreciate him.

A Character Drama

It’s hard not to draw a few comparisons here to other similar movies that focus on an individual’s mental decline. Taxi Driver comes to mind or, more recently, Joker; both are good examples. Rent-a-Pal follows a similar path to these types of movies but with a little less finesse.

Andy from Rent-a-Pal (2020)
Andy, played by Will Wheaton, is suitably sinister

David suffers from the same difficult life and social isolation that characters such as Travis Bickle, from Taxi Driver, suffer from. His character never feels quite so fleshed out, however. He holds a much more optimistic view of life. David is still hanging on to hope and is a far more gentle soul than most of these types of characters. This makes his decline feel all the more sudden and makes the lack of story telling finesse more apparent.

David struggles but has been coping with his life situation. He feels as though caring for his mother is his responsibility but still hopes for love. His life is tragic but not without hope. The thought that he could become obsessed with a character on a video tape is, frankly, rather ridiculous. Given the events of the movie and where his life could potentially go, it seems all the more ridiculous. The plot, frankly, descends into farce.

David never seems to be a dark enough person to become what Rent-a-Pal wants him to become. He never seems thoroughly detached from life or his sanity. The way events progress feels like the writer used a sledgehammer when a tap hammer would have sufficed. By the end of the movie you will likely be left wondering “What the hell happened?” and “How did we get to this?”. It is unbelievable and, honestly, pretty damn farcical and silly.

An Uneven Experience

Rent-a-Pal is a movie that is somewhat uneven. The first half is compelling and enjoyable. Acting performances are generally really good, character development is fairly steady, and the pacing is decent. The second half, however, descends into lunacy. The interesting development of David’s character is lost. The events are entirely unbelievable and there are a number of eye rolling moments.

As the last 15 minutes of the movie played, I was wondering whether I was watching a black comedy. It is funny, that is for sure, and I think a lot of it is intentional. But the plot just falls apart and the ending is completely rushed. I was left grieving for a movie that had so much potential and could have been so much more.

Rent-a-Pal presents itself as a deep character study of a person who is easy to empathise with. It then has that person do things that are silly, unrelatable, and totally unbelievable. A second act more in tune with the first would have had me rating Rent-a-Pal much more positively. As it is, it lost me in the second half and then made sure I would never go back with the ending.

I would like to quickly mention that there are a few scenes in Rent-a-Pal featuring violence towards elderly people. I am sure this is something that might upset certain viewers and it is presented here in a pretty unrelenting manner so keep that in mind.

Some Excellent Acting

Acting is generally great. Kathleen Brady does a fantastic job of portraying a person suffering from Dementia. She garners a few laughs, as well, with some of her sharp comments. This wasn’t an easy role to play. She is both sympathetic and offers a glimpse into the stern woman she used to be.

Will Wheaton is absolutely brilliant as Andy the host of Rent-a-Pal. He has a sinister quality to his performance that made me really wish he wasn’t just a host repeating the same thing over and over. This movie would have benefitted massively from Andy having a more drawn out dialogue with David. The way things are done is severely limiting to one of the best parts about the movie. I thought he was great.

Amy Rutledge, as Lisa, is excellent. She does a perfect job of portraying a kind, caring, awkward person and you warm to her immediately. There are a number of scenes that display Amy’s excellent ability to convey tenderness and emotion. She has great range and I look forward to seeing more of her in the future.

Lisa and David from Rent-a-Pal (2020)
When you are so thicc that someone adds a parental advisory comment to IMDB

I’d also point out that Amy obviously has such a bodacious booty that someone felt the need to mention it in the IMDB parental Advisory section. I quote directly here “Lisa’s pants are very tight and might be very distracting for some viewers.”. That sort of reminds me of when people call women slutty because they have large breasts. Get a life people, she can’t help having an awesome ass. How do you even hide that? You want her to wear a gown all the time? Damn, people are weird.

A Few More Plus Points

Brian Landis Folkins, as David, is typically really good but has a few less stellar moments. Sometimes he is excellent and thoroughly believable. Other times, when he is tasked with talking to himself and acting dramatic, he is a little less capable. He does have to carry the majority of the movie, however, and does a fine job creating a sympathetic character. His comedy timing is decent at certain points, as well. His taped message at Video Rendezvous, in particular, is a brilliant example of great, believable, comedy work.

Rent-a-Pal is well shot and looks suitably gloomy. The sets are fantastic and they have captured that 90s nostalgia really well. It’s all very depressing to look at and I am sure that is the intention. There are some interesting shots, especially when David is talking to Andy, and the cinematography is often very creative.

Difficult To Recommend

I feel as though the second half of Rent-a-Pal makes so little sense, given the context of the situation, that I can’t recommend it. My partner and I were left so unsatisfied and practically suffering migraines from all the eye rolling. The events are so unbelievable and the ending so farcical that it can leave you wanting so much more. What’s more, the ending is just not that interesting or enjoyable. In fact, the second half is pretty unenjoyable as a whole.

Lisa and David from Rent-a-Pal (2020)
Literally one of the only bright scenes from Rent-a-Pal

Sure, horror movies can be unbelievable, of course. Part of enjoying a movie is to suspend disbelief. But the difference between how the first and second half are presented is just too great. If you want me to believe in David’s struggles and understand what he desires from life; how can I believe the events of the second half of the movie are even possible? A more nuanced presentation of David’s mental health struggles was desperately needed here. David needed to be declining in a dramatic fashion throughout to get to where he ended up.

The first half of the movie is really good and I would almost recommend it purely for the character performances themselves. Will Wheaton is fantastic and almost makes the movie worth a watch alone. I am sure a lot of people will enjoy the ending and my final rating is partially with those people in mind. I didn’t enjoy it and felt the movie could have been so much more than it was.

Is it a Knockout?

Rent-a-Pal is a movie that starts out offering so much but fails to deliver thanks to an uneven second half. Funny at times and absolutely brutal at others, it is a movie that could have been so much more,

David is a sympathetic character that appears gentle and kind which makes the events of the movie seem unlikely and unbelievable. A more nuanced writer would have been able to craft a story which helped the viewer to relate to the decline of David's mental state. A more experienced writer may have been able to put together an ending that didn't seem so far fetched. As it stands, we are left questioning where things went so wrong and how.

Acting is generally great and Will Wheaton is fantastic. The character driven story is compelling up to a point. Rent-a-Pal may even be worth a watch just for the first half and Andy's creepy delivery. Some people may even really enjoy the ending. As it stands, Rent-a-Pal is just too uneven to recommend and the rushed ending is sure to leave some people disappointed.

Trailer: Rent-a-Pal

YouTube video
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Rent-a-Pal Cover Image

Movie Information

Release Date:16th November 2020
Movie Type:Horror, Drama, Thriller
Movie Length:108 Min
Starring: Amy Rutledge , Brian Landis Folkins , Will Wheaton
Directed By: Jon Stevenson
Country: United States
Genre: Horror, Drama, Thriller
Language: English
Parental Guidance: Violence, language, alcohol abuse, suicide references, elder abuse, injury detail, nudity, implied masturbation.