When it comes to demonic playthings, one name rules the roost — or should that be toybox? Ever since his introduction in 1988’s Child’s Play, mini-murderer Chucky has dominated the market for killer toys in horror. Wannabe usurper Annabelle, introduced in The Conjuring before being gifted her own drab, self-titled spinoff (followed by two even duller sequels), proves that no matter how creepy the doll, there’s really no point if it doesn’t actually move around. Chucky, of course, has the added advantage of being able to talk, with Brad Dourif’s caustic delivery providing an extra layer of menace to Don Mancini’s brilliant creation. It’s a brave man, then, who attempts to put his own spin on the demonic toy mythos. And yet, that’s exactly what Benny Loves You aims to do.
The film is the debut feature of writer-director Karl Holt, who also plays the lead along with doing many other things behind the scenes as the end credits cutely point out. Opening with a thrilling, if shambling, sequence involving a bratty kid and a sentient teddy bear with pointy teeth that emerges from a glowing-red toybox overflowing with mystical dry ice, Benny Loves You immediately establishes what kind of movie it is. The Chucky series has gradually embraced a goofier and more anarchic tone over time; Holt takes that idea and turns it all the way up to 11. In the initial moments alone, an exhausted mother Googles “is it legal to smack a kid?” Aside from being genuinely funny, the teddy movements are nicely rickety, setting the stage for Benny himself.
Benny belongs to Holt’s Jack, a hapless toy inventor in a dark stage of arrested development who’s celebrating his 35th birthday at home with his parents when tragedy strikes. Forced to finally grow up and move on with his life, Jack disposes of his beloved childhood teddy. But Benny refuses to simply lay around gathering dust. Instead, the blasted thing, which looks a bit like Elmo in a waistcoat and whose key catchphrase is also the title of the film, embarks on a charm offensive with the intent of proving how much Jack means to him. This generally involves killing everybody who turns up at the door, with Benny then spreading the gory remains around the house to proclaim his love. Can Karl stop Benny before it’s too late, or will he spend the rest of his life burying bodies in the garden?
More by Joey Keogh: Review: Chris Baugh’s ‘Boys from County Hell’
Benny Loves You is charmingly low budget and defiantly DIY, with just a couple locations and a small cast of mostly unknowns, all of whom are fully committed to the bit. Jack’s brown-nosing co-worker Richard (George Collie), who insists on his name being pronounced “Ree-shard” despite not being French, is a standout who frequently steals scenes by cuddling his mini-vac for no apparent reason or babbling on about Prince at the worst possible moment. There are plenty of bizarre character beats, but the movie is also loaded with heart, particularly when it comes to Jack’s sweet courtship with Dawn (Claire Cartwright, who has a bit of a Vanessa Kirby vibe), a sparky, well-meaning colleague whose childhood experience with a devilish dolly brings them together amidst Benny’s path of destruction.
In a film like this, the most important element is inarguably the toy itself. As the dreadful 2019 Child’s Play reboot proved, it doesn’t matter if Mark Hamill himself voices your killer doll; without convincing, tangible visuals, the whole thing will fall apart. Benny’s movements are captured by what looks to be a combination of practical FX and top-notch CGI. His feet often don’t hit the ground but that just makes the effect of Benny bobbing along more charming. Whether Benny is proudly holding up his weapon of choice, ironing, mowing the lawn or even driving a car, there’s endless hilarity to be gleaned from just watching him move about the place. Holt plays with his shadow too, silhouetting the diminutive killer against some bedsheets hanging on the line in a funny nod to Michael Myers, or Leatherface, or possibly even both.
There are delightfully diverse movie references sprinkled throughout, from Robocop to Chucky’s theme which the score, presumably intentionally, apes. The tone of Benny Loves You is similar to recent SXSW hit Paul Dood’s Deadly Lunch Break, but Holt’s film is more rough and ready rather than cuddly, which is funny considering it features an actual teddy bear. Likewise, the recent Willy’s Wonderland has a comparably anarchic energy, but the bloodthirsty animatronics are more tactile. In Benny Loves You, though, the characterizations are deeper and more considered overall. The deaths are just as gruesome and inventive, however this is the first time, in recent memory at least, that a character’s guts have been vacuumed out in front of them, and it’s truly a sight to behold.
More by Joey Keogh: Review: Anthony Scott Burns’ ‘Come True’
Benny is a delightfully devious creation, which Holt unsurprisingly also had a hand in building, both cute and creepy. The filmmaker should definitely sell the doll if possible, since he’d make a fortune from the same horror fans to whom Jack is looking to market his “Skare Bears.” Toys aren’t just set dressing though; they’re implemented throughout to provide an insight into who Jack really is. For instance, he grabs a lightsaber to defend himself against a perceived threat, while as a child Jack has nightmares about a demon in his hallway whose design is straight out of a kids’ horror movie. Even though Benny is clearly evil, it’s hard not to root for everything to work out for the poor sod.
Holt is juggling a lot of different balls on Benny Loves You, which may explain why the cinematography, which he tackled in conjunction with John Bowe (who also handled the sound, naturally), does not impress. There is a lovely shot of some slowly falling feathers amidst an otherwise horrific moment of carnage, but otherwise the movie feels boxy and hemmed in. Although it’s difficult to make an office building look particularly inviting, there’s a drabness to most of the setups. Considering just how much stuff Holt was responsible for, however, it’s not surprising something fell by the wayside, and thankfully the film’s look doesn’t spoil the overall enjoyment.
The director’s performance as the lead character is terrific too, and utterly vanity-free. Jack isn’t a hopeless case, but he’s also not a hero in waiting. Watching his strange journey to adulthood through fighting off a demonic teddy is borderline moving at times. Holt wisely keeps things simple and straightforward, allowing the performances from peripheral characters to occupy the space they deserve, including a duo of hilariously useless, custard cream loving cops, which are pitched more than slightly farcical. Taking its cues from the later Chucky movies, Benny Loves You embraces the inherent insanity of the premise, setting it free in a similar manner to how the titular toy runs riot.
There might even be a Chucky v Benny movie showdown in the future, like how King Kong and Godzilla recently locked horns albeit on a much smaller scale. It takes a brave man to wade into waters dominated by a bonafide horror icon, but Benny Loves You proves there’s plenty of life in tiny killer toys — as frightening as that might be to acknowledge.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.