Like its stuffed star, the laugh out loud, entertaining, and surprisingly endearing “Benny Loves You” is hard not to love.
Benny Loves You took five years to develop and sent writer/director Karl Holt into massive debt trying to fund it. However, now that this true labor of love has found its way into the world, it’s hard not to be grateful that such a unique and wildly entertaining film exists.
Based on the trailer, I expected to have a good time. But I didn’t expect to be so beguiled — utterly possessed by this film’s bewitching magic.
The stage for this uproarious black comedy about the painful transition from childhood to adulthood is set with a wonderful opening scene in which a horrible young girl named Ashley shouts at her beleaguered mother, channeling the entitled nastiness of Veruca Salt (Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory). She demands an early birthday present. Her frustrated mom puts up a fight but eventually gives in to the mind-numbing tantrum.
Now in possession of her shiny new doll, she callously tosses her favorite teddy bear aside. Later that night, Todd the Teddy comes to life and makes Ashley pay for her betrayal, and it’s an absolute delight.
As hilarious as it is mean-spirited, with a heavy focus on gore, the tone for the film is established early — and effectively.
We then meet our protagonist, a 35-year-old man-child named Jack (played by writer/director Karl Holt) who works at a toy company and still lives with his parents, refusing to relinquish the joys of his childhood.
There’s a poignant voiceover where Benny explains that he was one of the “unlucky ones” because he grew up with loving parents and a happy home. So, unlike those kids who couldn’t wait to grow up and get out on their own, he had something to lose. It’s hard to imagine a film about a killer teddy bear having something deep and meaningful to say about the human condition. But, underneath all its wit and mayhem, there’s a depth here that makes Benny Loves You something truly special.
Many reading this will no doubt feel sympathy for Jack, a man who others label a weirdo and a loser. It’s both wickedly funny and sad when he brings a date home who takes one look at his bedroom-turned-toy-museum and screams like she’s being stalked by a horror-movie madman.
After a horrific freak accident kills both his parents on Jack’s 35th birthday, he finds himself completely alone in the world, except for his favorite floppy-eared bear named Benny. 10 months after the death of his parents, his life is a mess. He can’t pay his bills and is dangerously close to losing his childhood home. He’s just lost a big promotion at work to his biggest rival, a Prince-obsessed tit named Richard, and has been handed a humiliating demotion. He has no girlfriend and no friends, and no one takes him seriously.
In an effort to turn his life around, he purchases some absurd self-help tapes about how not to be a loser and decides it’s time to grow up. He then gets rid of everything that makes him happy in an effort to be the man he thinks he is supposed to be. This includes his beloved Benny.
Of course, it’s not hard to predict where this is going.
Benny comes to life and takes revenge for being tossed out.
The first violent attack is made against Jack’s other stuffed animals, which Jack discovers have all been “murdered” in really disturbing ways; disemboweled and beheaded. Hysterically, Benny has used spaghetti-o’s and ketchup to set up the horrific crime scene, which is shot like something out of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
I laughed out loud when Jack tried to call 999 (the UK equivalent to 911 for all our US readers) to report that someone had murdered all his teddies.
Soon, the violence escalates dramatically from the pretend teddy bear massacre to real, gruesome murders of the humans in Jack’s life who are trying to come between him and Benny, including his loan officer trying to foreclose on the house, his horrible boss, and a real estate agent. Even cats and dogs aren’t safe from Benny’s wrath. So, if you’re one of those people who can’t stand to see violence against animals in a movie, even the over-the-top cartoonish kind, steer clear of this film.
Despite the obvious upheaval of Jack’s life, at first Benny’s presence results in good fortune for Jack.
The bloodthirsty bear inspires Jack to create a new line of toys known as Scare Bears: horror-inspired toys with names like Stabby Abby, Dead Fred, and Bad Vlad. His boss initially scoffs at the idea, but Jack convinces him that there’s an untapped market of genre geeks who will eat this stuff up. And I think many of you, like me, can attest to how true that is.
What follows is a wonderfully inspired montage of man and bear collaborating and celebrating horror fans everywhere with great affection and reverence. It all leads to exactly the kind of blood-soaked, batshit crazy kind of finale you’d expect from a film like this — with lots of comic relief and a couple of surprisingly touching moments thrown in for good measure.
Like any good killer toy film, the star of the show is, undeniably, Benny.
His character and voice design and perfect, keeping him demented and dangerous without him ever losing an ounce of endearing charm.
Benny is clearly inspired by everyone’s famous childhood monster, Elmo, echoing the famous catchphrase of the Sesame Street stalwart when he repeatedly utters, “Benny loves you” while constantly demanding cuddles.
You can’t help but love Benny back, even while he is murdering people left and right with great savagery, as he kills out of a twisted sense of love and loyalty. Like Jack, he has remained childlike and kills with a sense of playfulness and naivete, giggling and shouting “ta-da” amidst the carnage.
It’s a nice bonus that the human characters are equally delightful, especially Jack, and the chemistry between Jack and Benny is better than it has any right to be. Holt, who also juggles writing, directing producing, and special effects responsibilities, completely shines as the lovable loser. Despite being labeled as a pathetic incel and giving us plenty of reasons to fault him for the depressing state of his life, Holt plays Jack as relatable and sympathetic. We can’t help but root for him.
There are some truly imaginative and incredibly fun shots that keep this from feeling like a generic killer toy film.
The animation, puppetry, and special effects are so well done. And while there are plenty of homages to other films, Benny Loves You never feels tired or derivative.
There’s no doubt this film leans much heavier into the comedy than the horror, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty here to keep gorehounds satisfied. While it’s never scary, the horror elements are plentiful and gloriously executed.
When it’s all said and done, however, it was this film’s heart that truly won me over.
I loved the way the toys in this film served as avatars for the less desirable traits of their owners, with Benny representing Jack’s id — the insecure part of him that’s afraid of growing up and afraid of letting go of the safety and security of childhood. But Benny is also the imaginative, playful, and passionate side of Jack. He’s the child that just wants to be free to follow his heart and to love and be loved, not judged for trying to be himself.
If you’ve ever uttered the phrase, “adulting is hard,” you’ll likely empathize with Jack’s plight in this film. Unlike a film like Child’s Play, Benny isn’t out to cause harm and destroy Jack’s life, though of course, that’s the inevitable side effect. He just loves a little too hard and protects Jack a little too ferociously. And it’s hard not to feel a little envious of that degree of devotion, even if we know it’s wrong.
Arthouse horror with award-winning production values, this is not; nor does it try to be.
You’ll no doubt notice that Benny’s feet don’t touch the ground when he runs, and you’ll laugh about how silly it all is. But you won’t be bothered by it. Because, in the end, the technical limitations do not dampen the absolute joyfulness of this film.
Be forewarned that this is designed to appeal to a very specific type of audience. If you fall into that sweet spot, you’re likely to be endlessly charmed by this UK treasure. If not, there’s a good chance you’ll find it insufferable.
How do you know if you should bet on Benny? Watch the trailer. If you think it looks like a riotous good time, I doubt you’ll be disappointed. If you watched the recent Nicolas Cage vehicle, Willy’s Wonderland, and thought, “Well, this is totally bonkers and makes zero sense…and I can’t get enough of it,” then this is a must-see movie for you.
Despite that comparison, I’d wholeheartedly argue that, despite my well-publicized love for Nic Cage, Benny Loves You is a far superior film. It’s an outstanding feature film debut from Karl Holt and one that feels destined for cult classic status.