Is ‘Benny Loves You’ the Next Great Killer-Doll Horror Film?

·5 min read
Dread
Dread

There’s nothing new about killer dolls—from Child’s Play, The Puppetmaster, and Dolls, to Trilogy of Terror, Magic, and Annabelle, they’re familiar horror-movie fiends designed to make us fear the very objects we’re supposed to cherish. Benny Loves You follows in the footsteps of those predecessors, serving up a gory tale about a man whose beloved plaything comes to homicidal life. Mining the bond shared between man and stuffed animal for gruesome comedy, it’s akin to a bleak riff on Toy Story in which the price for growing up is unending carnage.

Written, directed, and starring Karl Holt, Benny Loves You (in select theaters May 7, on demand May 11) is a quaint British tale about a socially inept single man named Jack (Holt) who lives with his parents and works at a toy company, where he takes a backseat to superstar colleague Richard (George Collie), the kind of arrogant twerp who tells people that he likes his name to be pronounced “Ree-shard.” Jack’s stuffy boss Ron (James Parsons) not only isn’t considering Jack for a promotion; he’s on the verge of firing him, no thanks to Jack’s latest idea: a dancing robot who, in a Terminator 2-style assembly line TV commercial, is accidentally dubbed AIDS instead of RAIDS (for Robot Artificial Intelligent Disco System). Jack is, in no uncertain terms, a man-child loser who, per Ron, hasn’t “evolved.”

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Jack’s stunted adolescence is underscored by the fact that he lets his parents throw him a kiddie birthday party each year, although for his 35th, things go haywire when a series of accidents result in the shocking deaths of his mom (Catriona McDonald) and dad (Greg Page). Ten months later, Jack has been demoted at work and saddled with an unfavorable mortgage on his family home, which compels him to heed the advice of a motivational-speaker audiobook and enter into adulthood. This mainly involves renovating his bedroom by removing all of the old toys that lined its shelves and posters that decorated its walls—signs of immaturity that, in a prior scene, scared off a woman with whom he’d hoped to score. But while this seems like a healthy process for Jack, Benny Loves You contends that it’s also a potential avenue for disaster—a case it makes via the figure of Benny.

A plush bear whose red fur and chirpy high-pitched voice recall everyone’s favorite Sesame Street denizen, Elmo, Benny is Jack’s lifelong best friend, a stuffed animal who in flashbacks is seen by Jack’s side through myriad youthful experiences. With a smiling face that radiates cheery warmth, as well as a host of catchphrases—“Benny loves you!”; “Cuddle me!”; “Play with Benny!”—he’s the sort of presence that would make a tyke squeal with delight and a parent want to tear out their hair. Jack still adores Benny but, now recognizing that childhood has come to a definitive end, he packs away the doll in a plastic container in his basement. What he doesn’t know, however, is that Benny isn’t inanimate. And more problematic still, he’s not interested in confinement—or sharing.

Before Jack can register what’s going on, Benny has begun stabbing, gutting, and decapitating not only Jack’s other toys, but anyone who might pose a threat to his well-being, beginning with a bank account manager who meets a grisly fate. Benny is lethally protective of his owner, and he’s also intensely jealous of anyone who might steal his affections, which becomes a problem once Jack strikes up a relationship with new coworker Dawn (Claire Cartwright). Quite simply, Benny wants Jack all to himself, and won’t let anyone come between them. Nor will he simply let Jack discard him, thereby forwarding a nightmare scenario in which the promises we make as kids to our favorite possessions are taken deadly seriously by those items, and breaking those contracts is akin to a betrayal punishable by death.

Benny’s giddiness is a sign of his insanity, and the way in which Holt animates him—bounding through hallways, bouncing around bedrooms, and flipping through the air, all as he slashes and gashes virtually everyone in sight—is Benny Loves You’s most entertaining aspect. The film’s CGI work is surprisingly sturdy for a low-budget affair such as this, including during Benny’s eventual showdowns against other sentient toys, and that polish goes a long way toward selling Benny as a living, breathing manifestation of unconditional love gone awry. Moreover, his incessantly chipper pronouncements become funnier the more they’re repeated; his unerring derangement is a gift that keeps on giving.

It’s too bad, then, that the rest of Benny Loves You doesn’t come close to living up to its nominal villain. Holt’s lead performance is corny and stilted, neither rooted in real emotional trauma nor goofy enough to generate laughs. The same goes for the rest of the cast’s turns, which are uniformly one-note and undercut by a script devoid of pointed one-liners, inventive twists or basic storytelling logic. Holt deliberately pitches everything at an absurd level, yet that hardly excuses the puzzling nonsensicality of some plot developments (i.e. why would anyone call the cops because they suspected that one doll had beheaded other dolls?), nor the humorlessness with which they’re executed.

Whenever Benny himself isn’t on screen, an air of amateurishness envelops Benny Loves You. The limited number of sets all look under-furnished (a clear sign of budgetary constraints), and the movie’s visuals are wracked by dull lighting and even duller compositional framing. Holt’s use of slow-motion is more assured, especially during a parodic final confrontation with the police, but a host of clunky edits neuter many other sequences’ potential. The effect is that the proceedings come across as a short film distended to feature length, albeit without the monetary support necessary to make it actually feel like an honest-to-goodness feature.

Consequently, don’t expect Benny Loves You to spawn a franchise to compete with the likes of Chucky or Anabelle—a fate that’s too bad for Benny himself, since if there’s anything about this indie thriller that deserves a second shot at murderous life, it’s the maniacally jovial and clingy stuffed animal of mass destruction.

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