Rent-A-Pal (2020) Movie Review - Will Wheaton Shines in Loneliness Horror

Horror, Drama, Thriller | 108 Min
Rent-a-Pal Cover Image
  • Director: Jon Stevenson
  • Actors: Amy Rutledge, Will Wheaton, Kathleen Brady, Brian Landis Folkins
  • Writers: Jon Stevenson
  • Producers: Annie Baker, Brian Landis Folkins, Brandon Fryman, Robert B. Martin Jr., Jon Stevenson, Jimmy Weber
  • Country: United States
  • Language: English
  • Parental: Violence, Language, Alcohol Abuse, Suicide References, Elder Abuse, Injury Detail, Nudity, Implied Masturbation.
  • Horror, Drama, Thriller | 108 Min

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.

Welcome to Knockout Horror. Today we are reviewing Rent-A-Pal from 2020. 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 feature length debutant Jon Stevenson and starring Brian Landis Folkins, Amy Rutledge, and Will Wheaton.

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.

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

The tape turns out to be a one to one conversational format production hosted by Andy (Will Wheaton). Only, there is something different about the tape. It is almost as if Andy is talking directly to David. Unenthusiastic at first, a failed potential date leads David to return to the tape to seek comfort in Andy. Developing an obsession that will lead to terrible consequences.

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

It takes a decent length of time for Rent-A-Pal to find its horror trappings. They come on very late in the film so you should go into it expecting to wait for things to get going. The character drama takes precedence and the movie requires the viewer to thoroughly buy into David’s tormented life of loneliness, rejection and abject suffering. Luckily, the lead up to the real meat of the movie is actually rather interesting.  

An Intriguing Plot

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. David’s situation and personal circumstances do a lot of heavy lifting when it comes to keeping the viewer invested. 

Incidentally, David’s mental decline plays heavily into the story in much the same way as Travis Bickle’s does in Taxi Driver. The only issue here is that David doesn’t seem to be a person on the cusp of psychological collapse. Something which can make the progression of the story feel a little forced and just a little far fetched. An issue which makes the movie, as a whole, a little uneven.

An Uneven Experience

The first half of Rent-A-Pal is compelling and enjoyable. Acting performances are generally really great, 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 out, 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 loses cohesion and I can’t help but feel as though it was all a little rushed. I was left grieving for a movie that had so much potential but just didn’t stick the landing.

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 didn’t quite manage to rope me back in.

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.

Should You Watch Rent-A-Pal?

I do think you should watch Rent-A-Pal. It starts out offering so much but, ultimately, fails to deliver thanks to a shaky second half. It still has plenty of high points, though. Funny at times and absolutely brutal at others. It is a movie that is as enjoyable as it is uneven.

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 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 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 just misses the mark for a solid recommend but is still, absolutely, worth a watch.

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