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Understuffed (Review: Benny Loves You)

“Benny Loves You” is streaming on Prime

Back in the day, the vast majority of scary cinema didn’t exactly knock themselves out in terms of a smart script, committed actors, or innovative directors. The feeling was that audiences wanted gore, gratuitous nudity, and jump scares, so why bother casting pearls before swine?

You know what? I get it. During my first couple years of college, many of my friends would spend their Friday nights going to a game, checking out a party, going on a date, and in some vanishingly rare circumstances, getting schoolwork done. Baby Tim didn’t do much of those things. Instead, I would a) order takeout, b) get high, and c) find a terrible horror movie to watch.* Clearly there was a market for that stuff.

Even while watching bottom-of-the-barrel slasher movies through a haze of dope kush, I became a snob. I learned not to waste my time on Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Take Manhattan. While I did waste my time with deathless cinematic offerings such as Motel Hell, I was searching for something more, something in the horror genre that could be clever, intelligent, sometimes disturbing, and occasionally transgressive.

Over time I learned something you likely figured out long ago. In the world of horror movies, execution is everything. When creativity, intelligence, and wit are applied, a slasher movie or monster flick can be elevated to something special. The brushstrokes of a potential cult classic are there with Benny Loves You, in which a jilted childhood pal searches for revenge while trapped in the body of a non-lethal stuffed animal. I wanted Benny Loves You to run with that bananas concept. Too often it stumbles.

Remember when you were a very small kid? Remember when you likely had that one, special stuffie that meant more than the world to you? Jack (Karl Holt) remembers. He has a laser focus on his stuffed pal Benny, a toy dog/rabbit/whatever that spouts catchphrases in a squeaky voice. Benny got Jack through what appears to be a fairly solitary childhood.

Now, Jack’s 35th birthday is fast approaching. While he’s gotten a job as a designer for an English toy company, he continues to live with his parents and burrows into the detritus of his childhood. Jack seems somewhat content to live as a boy-man, until both of his parents die in unexpected and quite gory accidents.

The lesson Jack thinks he’s learned is that it’s way past time to put away childish things. With the help of an obnoxious self-help tape, he begins dressing appropriately at work. He removes his childhood decorations. from his room. He attempts a romance with Dawn (Claire Cartwright), a savvy co-worker. Most importantly, while preparing to sell his parents’ house, he throws away Benny.

As it turns out, Benny is a little bit pissed off about that! The stuffed sociopath doesn’t come looking to carve a piece out of Jack. His love is unconditional, and he decides to kill the bejeezus out of anyone standing in Jack’s way, including his officious boss (James Parsons) and the loan officer tasked with foreclosing upon his childhood home.

Benny Loves You is a passion project by writer-director-star Karl Holt. He initially tested out the concept with the short Eddie Loves You, then saved loads of money and spent loads of time to expand it to feature-length. There are very few things in this world I love more than someone making a thing they love on their own, driven by belief. I wanted this film to work, and had I seen it in my late teens, I likely would have adored it.

Part of the problem is that, at its core, Benny Loves You is a one-joke movie. A stuffed toy killing people is pretty funny initially, and Holt’s screenplay is generally content to coast on that surface idea. There are only so many times the sight of Benny wielding a weapon is entertaining. After a while, I thought, “Okay, so what else ya got?” More frustrating is when it advances ideas that would make for strong comic fodder and then ignores it. There’s a brief subplot where Jack and Benny develop a line of robotic stuffed creatures based on horror concepts, such as Redneck Rex and Dead Fred. Would we have Benny leading an army of deranged dolls, or would he defend his beloved Jack from them? No idea, and after that’s set up, it’s quickly abandoned.

I can imagine during the making of this film, Holt and his crew were cackling over the many, many gore gags. It’s cool, and I see nothing wrong with the occasional cinematic decapitation. For something like this film to really soar, there needs to be a strong balance between Benny’s unstoppable love for Jack and the horrors unleashed upon him. Holt occasionally gets the tone right, and when he does, it’s gleeful chaos. Too often, Holt pushes the tone in the direction of bloody mayhem, and if he’d known when to introduce some heart, the moment a knife was driven through it would have had more power.

I don’t mean for this to be snide, but it’s a pity that the best member of the cast is Benny. As Jack, Holt isn’t bad as a guy who’s so afraid of the world that he won’t let himself grow up. I think the role needed a performer more charismatic, someone who could have played the more off-putting aspects of the role while still making Jack a sympathetic character. Claire Cartwright is able to handle comedy, horror, and a little bit of drama as Dawn. The problem is that she’s a character without much of an arc, and who seems to fall in love with Jack because she’s the only woman with a sizable role. Benny, though? With a combination of surprisingly good CGI and puppetry, he becomes a puckish antihero willing to kill anyone just to prove how much he loves Jack. Benny is a strong character who needed a movie around him that’s just as strong.

At the end of the day, Benny Loves You simply doesn’t work. It doesn’t work in interesting ways, and a couple of strong rewrites might have solved a number of problems. However, Karl Holt shows real promise as a filmmaker. He has an off-kilter sensibility and makes some fun and amusing choices. I’m hoping this film is a springboard to better things, but I know for a fact that somewhere, some stoner kid is going to love this flick.

*If I could go back in time, I’d tell my younger self that inflicting bad/extreme movies on your friends is a poor substitute for having an actual personality.

Tim Brennan Movie Critic

Tim has been alarmingly enthusiastic about movies ever since childhood. He grew up in Boulder and, foolishly, left Colorado to study Communications in Washington State. Making matters worse, he moved to Connecticut after meeting his too-good-for-him wife. Drawn by the Rockies and a mild climate, he triumphantly returned and settled down back in Boulder County. He's written numerous screenplays, loves hiking, and embarrassed himself in front of Samuel L. Jackson. True story.

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