10th Oct2020

Grimmfest 2020: ‘Rent-A-Pal’ Review

by Alain Elliott

Stars: Wil Wheaton, Brian Landis Folkins, Amy Rutledge, Kathleen Brady, Adrian Egolf | Written and Directed by Jon Stevenson

The nineties might not have been the best era when it comes to horror movies. Some will disagree but for me, the amount of top quality horror from that decade is minimal. But that doesn’t stop that time period from being very nostalgic for me. The decade of movie son VHS and music on cassette is when I became a teenager, so any movie set at this time immediately piques my interest.

Rent-A-Pal follows David in 1990. A lonely guy who is stuck in his life of caring for his elderly mother who is suffering from dementia. But after six months using a video dating service, he discovers a videotape named Rent-A-Pal. Becoming addicted to this VHS friend who gives him someone to talk to and interact with, things do begin to look more positive, and then when he has his first date through the service, things are looking even better. But is everything to good to be true?

Despite the almost clichéd lonely middle-aged man, Rent-A-Pal is a highly original take on the subject. The cast are perfect. Every single one of the main cast are excellent. None more so than Brian Landis Folkins in the lead as David. Helped by some expert writing, he makes what could be a plain horrible character, extremely sympathetic right up to the final moment of the film. That final scene is, despite some violent moments before it, somehow depressing. I really shouldn’t feel sorry for David but it’s impossible not too. We see him spiral into loneliness and madness and much of it is not his own doing.

His love interest is Lisa played by Amy Rutledge. Another great performance, a character you enjoy watching and makes you desperately want that happy ending even if you’re sure it’s not going to happen. Rutledge is perhaps most impressive in the final scenes too.

Finally, Will Wheaton, best known as Wesley from Star Trek: The Next Generation is excellent as an unusual villain. Speaking to David directly from the TV via VHS in what should be a one-way conversation works surprisingly well. The tracking over the VHS and distortion of the sound creates a creepy tone to each scene he is in.

There’s an excellent score throughout. Small moments of that eighties electro synth that is still popular in the genre, work well here while the mainstay of the music is this hauntingly beautiful score. Composer Jimmy Weber doesn’t have much experience in this department but you wouldn’t be able to tell. The score is a big part of the movie.

It took over an hour for me to realise where Rent-A-Pal was heading. Before that, you know it’s going to get darker, you know it’s not staying as a sweet love story. My only complaint is that maybe the final third doesn’t go quite as hard as it could. The impact is still there but maybe it could have been a bit more powerful.

Rent-A-Pal is somehow both surprisingly sweet and horribly dark. But that blends works so well together and first time director and writer Jon Stevenson has made something very good. You will have seen this story before but this Stevenson’s film delves inside people’s loneliness and need for someone, anyone to be friends with. This isolation is perhaps more relevant now than ever, making Rent-A-Pal a must-watch.

**** 4/5

Rent-A-Pal screened today, October 10th, as part of this years Grimmfest virtual festival.

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