Benny Loves You (2019)

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Jack is a geeky incel manchild, still living with his parents, in a bedroom festooned with a teen posters, games, juvenile tchotchkes and stuffed animals. Yet when, on his 35th birthday, both his parents die in a double whammy of freak domestic accidents, Jack is left with debts and bills, a demotion at the company where he works as a toy designer, and a messy existence now that there is no one to coddle him. So he decides to clean up his act, to become a man, and to put away childish things – including his most beloved toy, the talking teddy bear Benny. Benny, however, will not go away so easily –  and when he is not showering Jack with needy, clingy love, he is viciously murdering anyone or anything who in any way gives Jack a hard time. 

In addition to starring as the arrested Jack, Karl Holt is also the writer/director of Benny Loves You, pulling all the killer toy tropes out of his play box and setting them up as an absurdist black comedy. For Benny is like the bastard lovechild of Chucky from the Child’s Play films and Ted (2012) – and where a doll like Annabelle (2014) would look terrifying in any setting, part of what makes Benny so hilarious is his relentless cuteness and chirpy positivity, even when gleefully slicing and dicing. Benny’s speech is confined to a small repertoire of cheery phrases – “It’s Benny!’, ‘Okey-dokey’, ‘Benny loves you!’, ‘Whee!’, ‘Happy Benny’, ‘More!’, ‘Cuddle Benny!’,’Stay with me!’, ‘Play with Benny!’, ‘Ta-da!’, ‘Oh wow!’ and a lot of manically excited chuckling – and as he repeats them with abandon in his Elmo-like high-pitched voice, they become ever more improbably sinister expressions of malicious intent. Not that the film lacks an Annabelle: for where Jack has his Benny, Jack’s new work colleague and love interest Dawn (Claire Cartwright) once owned a creepy Annabelle-alike named Amy who also returns here as a knife-wielding devil doll.

All these toys serve as avatars for their owners’ most childish thoughts and behaviours. It is most obvious in the case of Jack’s work rival and arch ‘tit’ Richard (George Collie), whose state-of-the-art robo-toy Roscoe mimics all the most annoying mannerisms of its creator – or of Jack’s patronising boss Ron (James Parsons), who invests in his pet pug Precious an intense, child-like affection that is never extended to his employees. Meanwhile Benny serves as Jack’s unrestrained id, let loose to clown like a child, and immaturely lashing out against anyone or anything that makes Jack feel angry or jealous or humiliated. Benny is also closely associated with Jack’s imagination, inspiring him to create a new range of horror-based ‘Scare Bears’. Benny may be a plush toy, but he also seems a playful expression of Jack’s inner workings: both his creativity, and his killer instincts.

All this gives Benny Loves You a strong psychological subtext, with Benny the projection of Jack’s deepest, darkest desires, and the plaything of an unhinged unconscious which, even in adulthood, will not stay buried. “I’m not Norman Bates, ok,” Jack insists to Dawn. Yet Jack does seem the most likely candidate for the real psychokiller here, as it is his enemies that Benny slays, and his office cafeteria where Benny goes postal. Similarly in the film’s prologue, when a screaming, tantrum-prone, serially misbehaving and manipulative little girl (Bella Munday) is killed in her bedroom, the murderer appears to be her discarded teddy bear come to life – but we are left to wonder whether we might in fact have witnessed an act of filicide perpetrated by the girl’s exhausted, angry and unambiguously violent mother (Jennifer Healy). 

Toys do not really kill people with malice, any more than the imaginary friend Daniel in Adam Egypt Mortimer’s Daniel Isn’t Real (2019) is, well, real. Rather, it is the fictions of cinema which allow our innermost thoughts and emotions to take on monstrous form. Holt’s very funny film reifies the irrational and gives stuffing and substance to the lowest, most infantile of human impulses – and appropriately, the final confrontation between Jack, his colleagues and the various killer toys plays out like just anther puerile game in Jack’s childhood home, with even the police (Anthony Styles, Darren Benedict) on the scene packing nothing more than pellet guns. Perhaps a part of us always remains the frightened, impressionable kids that we once were. Certainly Benny Loves You appeals to the viewer’s inner child – with extreme prejudice – and the results are an amiably twisted joy.

Summary: Karl Holt’s feature debut finds a hilariously playful side to an arrested manchild’s darker impulses.

© Anton Bitel