Review: ‘Rent-A-Pal,’ starring Brian Landis Folkins, Wil Wheaton, Kathleen Brady and Amy Rutledge

September 24, 2020

by Carla Hay

Brian Landis Folkins and Wil Wheaton in “Rent-A-Pal” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films/IFC Midnight)

“Rent-A-Pal”

Directed by Jon Stevenson

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Denver in 1990, the horror flick “Rent-A-Pal” features an all-white cast representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A lonely 40-year-old bachelor buys a mysterious “Rent-A-Pal” video, featuring a “pep talk” guy who might or nor might not have sinister intentions. 

Culture Audience: “Rent-A-Pal” will appeal primarily to people who like horror films that have a retro setting, but viewers have to be willing to tolerate the movie’s biggest flaws, which are the uneven pacing and a disappointing ending.

Amy Rutledge and Brian Landis Folkins in “Rent-A-Pal” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films/IFC Midnight)

Before Internet dating existed, some people in the VHS video era watched videotapes of potential partners through companies that provided these dating services. This video dating service is the catalyst for the story of “Rent-A-Pal,” an uneven and somewhat disappointing horror film that’s the feature-film debut of writer/director Jon Stevenson, who also edited the movie and is one of the film’s producers. It’s not a horrible movie, but there’s a big tonal disconnect between most of the film and what happens in the movie’s final scenes.

“Rent-A-Pal” takes place in Denver in 1990. The central character is a lonely, unemployed 40-year-old bachelor named David Brower (played by Brian Landis Folkins), who lives with his cranky, 73-year-old widowed mother Lucille (played by Kathleen Brady), who is suffering from early stages of dementia. They both live off of her Social Security and disability income.

There are times when Lucille is lucid and aware of reality. But many other times, her dementia makes her think that she’s young and that her husband Frank is still alive. She often mistakes David for Frank, who died almost 10 years ago. Sometimes David corrects her over this mistaken identity, and sometimes he doesn’t.

David is very much a stereotypical, unemployed middle-aged bachelor who lives with his mother. He lives in a “man cave” basement, where he likes to watch TV and movies. And because David is his mother’s only 24-hour-a-day caretaker, it doesn’t leave much room for him to have a social life. The movie gives a little bit of backstory on what David was like before this story took place. What is revealed is that he’s been a nerdy loner for pretty much all of his life.

Six months before this story takes place, David had signed up for a video dating service called Video Rendezvous, which is headquartered in Denver. The way that the service works is that members rent VHS videotapes of potential partners. In each videotape, there’s a series of video introductions by different potential partners. If the person renting the video sees anyone who might be a good match, they tell the dating service, which will then contact that person, who will then decide whether or not to contact the suitor who’s interested in meeting them.

The beginning of the movie shows David watching a “potential partners” videotape from Video Rendezvous, but no one interests him. One woman named Carla wants a macho man, which obviously doesn’t describe David. Another woman named Meg has a puppet with her, which is too weird even for eccentric David. Another woman named Susan seems like she could be a good match, because she says she loves snuggling up with someone to watch movies, but then she says she’s not interested in a man who lives in his parents’ basement.

These vignettes are examples of the movie’s low-key humor, which are sprinkled throughout the film. This humor isn’t enough to help when “Rent-A-Pal” goes off the rails at the end, but it’s an amusing touch to a mostly somber and dreary film. A lot of screen time is spent on scenes of David doing one of two things: being miserable at home or going to Video Rendezvous.

So far, David hasn’t had any potential partner in the dating service who’s requested to meet him. It’s why David goes to Video Rendezvous headquarters to update and improve his video introduction, where he has to give a brief summary of himself and what he’s looking for in a partner. He does this video update at the suggestion of a Video Rendezvous employee named Diane (played by Adrian Egolf), whose perky persona might remind people of the Flo character in those Progressive Insurance commercials.

Diane seems to be doing double duty at the company as a receptionist and a salesperson. Her chirpy demeanor doesn’t hide that she’s more concerned about making sales than she is about the feelings of the customers she’s dealing with in person or over the phone. When David goes to Video Rendezvous, Janice is attentive to him only when he’s going to spend money, because other times she can be a little dismissive.

David’s updated video session goes pretty badly, because he’s nervous and awkward in the video. When David asks if he can redo the video, the camera man (played by Josh Staab) lies to David and tells him it’s a great video. The reason why the camera man wants David to leave is because he’s got other customers to attend to and he doesn’t want David to take up any more of his time.

These are examples that the movie shows of how someone like David often feels “invisible” and made to feel not as important as other people. And we all know what can happen in horror movies (and in real life) when socially awkward loners feel ignored and mistreated and a lot of rage builds up inside of them. It’s all pretty obvious at this point where the movie is going to go.

In the meantime, during this visit to Video Rendezvous, while Diane is on the phone and ignoring David, he sees a pile of videotapes for sale next to the receptionist’s desk. One of the tapes is called “Rent-A-Pal.” David is curious, so he buys the video.

David takes the “Rent-A-Pal” video home and starts playing it. It’s essentially a video of a middle-aged guy named Andy (played by Wil Wheaton), who sits alone in a room and pretends to talk to the viewer. Andy introduces himself, asks the viewer some questions, and gives pre-fabricated lines, with the necessary pauses, to simulate that a conversation is taking place between Andy and the viewer.

Andy uses only a few props in his act. One of the props is a phone that’s on a nearby table. When the phone occasionally rings, Andy picks up the phone and then hangs up without talking to the other person on the other line. It’s so Andy can show the viewer that the viewer has Andy’s undivided attention. Another prop he uses is a camera, so he can take “selfies” with the viewer.

At first, David doesn’t have much interest in “Rent-A-Pal” when he watches the video. But over time, David becomes so obsessed with the “Rent-A-Pal” video that he knows all the lines by heart. The movie has scenes that keep returning to David watching the video, so that bit by bit, more of David’s backstory comes out when Andy asks him questions about his life.

David’s father Frank was a jazz musician who frequently traveled, so David was raised primarily by his mother. As the story goes on, in David’s “conversations” with Andy, viewers find out that David’s mother Lucille was frequently abusive to David. He loves his mother and is very devoted to her, but David also shows signs of deep resentment against her.

And when David was in sixth grade, he had a humiliating experience involving a girl named Jane whom he had a crush on at the time. Something happened that involved Jane (which won’t be described in this review), and David ended up being wrongfully punished. That experience traumatized him. It explains why he seems to be shy and self-conscious when it comes to dating.

Throughout the movie, much is made of the VHS videotape aesthetic. There are many closeups of the grainy look of well-worn tapes, as well as closeups of what tape looks like inside a VCR. There’s also a nod to reel-to-reel films, when David watches porn on this type of film projector. It should come as no surprise that his mother Lucille is very uptight and repressive (which almost always seems to be the case in horror movies where a bachelor lives with his mother), so it’s very predictable what happens in a scene where Lucille catches David masturbating.

Life gets better for David when he meets a younger, mild-mannered woman named Lisa (played by Amy Rutledge) through the Video Rendezvous dating service. After a disappointing missed connection, Lisa agrees to meet David for a date. Lisa seems to be David’s ideal woman, because she and David have so much in common. Lisa is shy, is interested in movies, loves jazz music, and she works as a caregiver in a nursing home. David and Lisa’s first date is at a skating rink, and the date goes very well.

But this wouldn’t be a horror movie without something going terribly wrong. In “Rent-A-Pal,” it seems as if Andy knows what’s going on in David’s life and he’s jealous that David might have found a girlfriend. When David watches “Rent-A-Pal,” Andy begins to talk to David off of the pre-recorded script, and Andy gets very angry if he thinks that David isn’t paying enough attention to him. The movie leaves it open to interpretation if these conversations are happening for a supernatural reason or if it’s all in David’s head because he might be mentally unraveling.

Because David and Lisa’s burgeoning romance comes so late in the movie, this “unhinged” side of Andy also comes very late in the film. Therefore, what happens in the final scenes seems very rushed. There are abrupt shifts in the movie’s tone and pacing, as well as in the personalities of certain characters. These rapid changes don’t look genuine or earned, given the way that the previous majority of the movie was filmed.

And unfortunately, Folkins’ acting falters in the last scenes of the movie, which are supposed to be the most impactful parts of this story. Folkins does an adequate job for most of the movie when his acting style is about “realism,” but then his acting style shifts to “over-the-top,” and it’s just not convincing. Because the movie rests largely on what the David character does, the quality of the movie is lowered when the lead actor has such a noticeable change in acting style and the result is an unnecessary mess.

Wheaton does a good job in making people guess how evil Andy might or might not be. Considering that Wheaton doesn’t have much to do in this movie but act alone in a room, it’s a fairly impressive accomplishment. Fortunately, “Rent-A-Pal” didn’t copy the horror film “The Ring” and have Andy crawling out of the television set, because it would’ve been a bad decision to rip off this idea. Brady and Rutledge are very good in their roles, but they are essentially supporting characters who don’t have as much screen time as David does.

However, “Rent-A-Pal” ultimately falls short because it couldn’t quite decide what type of movie it wanted to be. The majority of the film looks like it could have been a disturbing psychological study, much like Robin Williams’ 2002 movie “One Hour Photo.” But then, “Rent-A-Pal” went down a very unimaginative and cliché horror path toward the end of the film, where unoriginal bloody violence destroys the compelling psychological portrait that was being painted.

IFC Films/IFC Midnight released “Rent-A-Pal” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on September 11, 2020.