BENNY LOVES YOU
- review by Ellis Reed
While October’s FrightFest had some wonderful films, the breakout hit was surely horror-comedy Benny Loves You, in which a stuffed toy comes to life and starts killing people. Karl Holt not only stars in the film but also wrote, directed and even self-funded it as a feature length treatment of his own short film from 2006. Collaborator John Bowe is listed as the cinematographer, but, as Holt explained to Popcorn Frights, “the crew of this film was so small that John basically did everything with me.”
The resulting feature is billed as “Chucky meets Fatal Attraction”, with shades of Ted and even Toy Story. Holt appears on screen as Jack: an underachieving toy designer, stuck at home with his doting parents, who fails to make a good impression at work. When a birthday mishap leaves him orphaned (if it’s possible to be “orphaned” in your mid-thirties), he takes the opportunity to reinvent himself, which means consigning his favourite childhood toy to the scrapheap.
According to the movie poster, “Hell hath no fury like a teddy scorned”. The plushie in question is Benny, who (tagline notwithstanding) is only a teddy in the broadest sense of being a soft toy. He’s certainly not a bear. I’d describe him as a sort of Tickle-Me-Elmo with long ears, but whatever he is, the merch practically makes itself.
As you might expect from the trailer, after being discarded, Benny springs to life. While his love for Jack is undiminished, he has a funny way of showing it, and it’s not long before he starts murdering minor characters. To begin with, he acts as an overzealous champion, wreaking revenge on Jack’s behalf. As the story unfolds, he starts to attack anyone who might come between him and his owner. His jealous streak poses a clear and present danger to the love interest, played by Claire Cartwright, who introduces herself with a double entendre so saucy that it actually took me a moment to register the non-rude meaning of what she’d said.
The first thing to say about Benny Loves You is that it’s really very, very funny indeed. Holt is a gifted comedian, both in writing and performance, and even had us laughing at his pre-recorded intro. The humour of the film is definitely cartoonish but not at the expense of emotional engagement. When Jack has to juggle a police visit with a poorly-hidden body, the resulting farce is very silly but no less effective at building tension. Characters can, at times, be almost as stupid as Baldrick or Father Dougal, but we still care about them and their antics, and the ending even packs a hefty emotional punch.
Of course, this is a horror-comedy, and the violence is hilarious throughout. Benny’s rampage includes some memorable kills—my favourite being the one with a hoover—which are served up with gruesome panache. I had the good fortune of watching it with a friend in the happy days between lockdowns, and I can honestly say we were laughing out loud from start to finish. When the pandemic recedes, and the film is on general release, it’ll be a great one to watch with a group of friends, and maybe even a fridge full of beers.
The second thing to say (if I can count the previous paras as a single “thing”) is that, for a self-funded passion project, Benny Loves You is extremely well made. In his interview for the Horror Channel, Holt identified editing as his forté: “I really enjoy the process of having the raw material and then starting to fashion what’s in your head using the right pacing, beats and sound… I’d always want a hand in that process. Directing is fun, but it’s actually the really exhausting part.” The editing of Benny Loves You is certainly very polished, but Holt brings quality to his all his roles—director, comedian, and everything else—up to and including the computer animation of the toys themselves. “Sometimes the PC could take three days to render a shot after I’d animated it,” he told the Horror Channel, “so I got into a process of taking weekends off and left my PC to batch render each weekend…”
In fact, Anthony Styles (“Bad Cop”) told Popcorn Frights that “working with Karl was actually really fantastic… [he] did almost everything… if there was something that he couldn’t do, or felt he couldn’t do… he would learn how to do it. He would get a manual or get it on the computer… and you’re thinking, how the hell has he come up with this?” For the final sequence, which took six months to create, Holt abandoned his backplates and rebuilt the kitchen as a 3D model (we didn’t even notice that it wasn’t real). The effects look fantastic from start to finish, and a special mention goes to the remote-controlled robot, which is a key antagonist in the final thrilling act and the source of some great comic beats beforehand. The four or five years that Holt spent on post production are reflected in the quality of the final product, which (very deservedly) won the 2020 FrightFest Horror Channel First Blood Award. He’s expressed an interest in doing “something very creepy and scary next” and there’s every reason to think he’ll succeed; the prologue, while comical, shows a very solid grasp of the spooky stuff, as you can see from the trailer.
The third and final thing to say is that Benny Loves You absolutely deserves an audience. It’s a triumph of indie filmmaking and a great comedy by any measure. As well as the First Blood Award, it received nominations at Sitges and Razorreel and was named best film (audience vote) at the San Sebastián Horror Film Festival. I’d go as far as to say it’s the funniest horror comedy I’ve seen since Shaun of the Dead, and frankly, it has “instant cult classic” written all over it. Make sure you catch it when you can, and if you like it as much as we did, share the love!