Whether it be actual toys or movies about them coming to life and killing people, they don’t make ’em like they used to. While the “Child’s Play” and “Puppet Master” franchises aren’t exactly rife with masterpieces, their pleasures are less guilty than those afforded by the genre’s latest installment: “Benny Loves You,” an English horror comedy liable to make audiences laugh far more than it scares them. Mostly, though, it just borders on boring. Aside from the murderous Benny himself, the film doesn’t add much to its gory genre.
The film centers on Jack (writer-director Karl Holt, wearing many hats), who also narrates. A 35-year-old pushover still living at home and struggling to advance in his career as a toy designer, he initially feels like an attempt to recapture the cheeky relatability of Simon Pegg’s “Shaun of the Dead” everyman. But as with his eponymous creation (the talking toy’s cheerful catchphrase gives the film its title), Jack comes across as an imitator, more Mega Bloks than Lego. Everyone in his life seems to be in league against him, as though conspiring against his happiness. This makes him easier to root for, if only by contrast, though it doesn’t make him any less bland.
“Benny Loves You” has a sardonic sense of humor that sometimes lands and sometimes doesn’t, as when the first victim’s mother googles “is it legal to smack my kid?” upon hearing the little girl scream in terror for the umpteenth time during the prologue. Less amusing is Jack, who ultimately plays second fiddle to the stuffed childhood bestie he throws away in the midst of preparing his house for sale following his parents’ accidental (and over-the-top violent) deaths — a mistake with deadly consequences for just about everyone in Jack’s life.
Compared to the human characters, Benny is genuinely entertaining, in large part because he isn’t an evil murderer so much as a mischievous troublemaker whose violent acts are a result of his unconditional love for Jack. Asked why he decapitated the loan officer tasked with repossessing their house, Benny responds (what else?) “Benny loves you!” Told to sit down and drop his knife, he replies with a simple “okey dokey!” It’s when the film embraces that playful, anarchic spirit that it finally — if briefly — comes into its own.
A joyful montage interspersing Jack’s development of a Skare Bears line of toys (led by such characters as Dead Fred, Redneck Rex and Mother T’Razor) with his and Benny’s bizarrely charming home life is the movie’s high point, not least because the violence finally feels secondary to the characters. The tension between Benny’s murderous antics and sweet personality isn’t exactly new, but it does make him more three-dimensional than most of his human counterparts. It’s ironic, given the title, but perhaps the biggest problem with “Benny Loves You” is that it doesn’t feature enough Benny.
Much like that playful plush, however, the film can’t change its nature. “Benny Loves You” is ultimately more interested in blood and guts than it is in heart and soul, with a high gore quotient but no flesh-and-blood characters worth remembering (or mourning). The practical effects that bring Benny to life are far and away the film’s most impressive achievement, especially since most other technical elements betray its modest budget, and are in line with the fable-like warning to anyone with a similarly beloved childhood toy: “Whatever you do, under any circumstances, don’t throw him out — or the next time you curl up to sleep, he might just come back for a cuddle.”
While it’s easy enough to imagine “Benny Loves You” performing well as a midnight movie at genre festivals (and it’s been doing the circuit since late 2019), the film’s tongue-in-check charms are less fun viewed alone at home. Whether any sequels follow — à la “Child’s Play” and other genre forebears — is impossible to predict, but one thing is certain: Benny himself is memorable even if his movie is not.