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The Rise of Horror Romance Movies

Love is in the air and it’s tainting my horror movie experience. I admit that I generally loathe romance movies and their bodice-ripping tropes. Horror tropes, though, are cool. But it’s 2021, and genre mash-up is practically a requirement at this point.

At a cursory glance, it seems that romance has always been a part of the horror genre. Frankenstein’s monster loved his bride. Norman Bates loved his mother. The Blob loved everything in sight (no shame). These are definitive horror movies with some romance elements. The curious hybrid of horror + romance stands on its own, and it's on the rise. Perhaps a younger generation of emerging directors, with a greater sense of self-awareness and identity, feel less constrained about exploring feelings as a topic. Also, the horror genre historically has been more avant-garde, experimental, and welcoming of eccentricity. The horror romance sits pleasantly at the table alongside the horror comedy, horror musical, horror melodrama, horror fantasy, horror sci-fi, and horror western.

So what makes a movie a horror romance? It has to combine tenets of both genres in equal parts: love triangles, impossible odds, star-crossed lovers, opposing forces outside of their control, while blending in tension and dread, showing something horrible or gory or paranormal, and reaching a definitive climactic point for the couple in question. Romance films typically end on a happy note, while horror films usually do not.

To prepare for this Valentine's Day, I committed to watching some notable horror romance movies, and here is what I've found. Horror romance reaches one of three possible outcomes: s/he loves me, s/he loves me not – or everyone dies!

Love and Monsters (2020)

A giant bug apocalypse might have wiped out most of the planet but that won’t stop peppy and disarmingly charming Joel (Dylan O’Brien) from leaving his underground bunker to travel 85 miles by foot to reach the love of his young life. This is a fun ride that’s a bit more scary that the typical YA films, and dog lovers will also want to check this out.

After Midnight (2019)

If you are a brooding 30-something dude who was recently left by the love of your life or high-school girlfriend, this movie may speak to you. By definition, this is the most spot on horror-romance on this list with long drawn out scenes of this sad guy blathering on and on about his feelings, or singing an entire 90s pop song to his lost love. And there’s also possibly a hulking, bloodthirsty monster running around.

A Ghost Story (2017)

David Lowry's take on what it's like being a ghost is fascinating, challenging, nearly wordless, and ultimately transcendent. The iconic white-sheeted ghost with dark eyes makes this look like a comedy, but it's not. There is deep, profound sorrow of the lost soul longing for love. And the climax of the film sent me into an existential crisis. This film has stayed with me and I think of it often.

The Shape of Water (2017)

Guillermo del Toro double dips into the horror-romance category with his beautiful, best picture winner about a meek woman who falls for a powerful fish man. Again this period piece’s art direction is remarkable and the story is truly touching. The debate rages over whether this was really “horror” to which I can only point out the preternatural creature at the center, the overall feeling of dread throughout, and the many terrifying sequences.

Crimson Peak (2015)

This exquisitely produced film directed by Guillermo del Toro confounded everyone when it was released: Is it horror? Is it romance? It turns out to be the definition of gothic fiction, or a tawdry romance set in a dark dilapidated mansion with ghosts! The thruple in this case is unnaturally star-crossed, the mansion lays on clay deposits and has red goo bleeding from the walls, and deformed ghosts keep spooking a new wife into lunacy. It’s all quite the rare, icky treat.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

This foreign film has a vampire meeting a damaged heroin-addicted man connecting over their loneliness and the fact that they are damaged people. Noir atmospherics are really key in conveying the horror, although the bloodletting is minimal. It's also billed as the first Iranian vampire western (filmed in the U.S.) and beautifully shot, directed and written by Ana Lily Amirpour.

Spring (2014)

An American abroad in Italy meets the girl of his dreams only to discover that she harbors a dark secret. The mystery unravels slowly in this quiet film with a Lovecraftian heart. This film was created by the talented due of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead who went on to direct The Endless and Synchronic.

Honeymoon (2014)

Sweet, quiet Paul finds his wife wandering in the woods and thus begins the nightmare for the newlyweds which begs the eternal question of how well you know your spouse. It’s a heartbreaking indie with two entrancing performances and shocking moments that linger in the mind ...and heart. Directed by Leigh Janiak, who is working on the eagerly-awaited trilogy of Fear Street films, based on R. L. Stine's book series.

Warm Bodies (2013)

A zombie plague might have wiped humanity from existence, but zombies have feelings too as we come to find out in this sweet, charming film. Nicholas Hoult and his gauzy eyes and Teresa Palmer bare both excellent at delivering the urgency and bad romance.

Thirst (2009)

This South Korean entry is as beautiful as it is absurd, and funny as it is tragic. A priest desperate to find a cure for a deadly virus is transformed into a vampire forcing him to leave his beliefs behind to satisfy his… thirst. Directed by Chan-took Park who also created the incredible Oldboy (2003) and the segment “Cut” in Three… Extremes (2004) is known for his eccentric point of views and execution.

Let The Right One In (2008)

This Swedish film (later remade in the U.S. as 2010’s Let Me In) is a tough one to include because at the center is a young-looking vampire with an old soul that convinces an actual young boy to fall in lover with her and do her bidding. She is lonely, and wants a companion but knows he will eventually grow old and die. The Swedish version definitely has more feels than the U.S. version which understandably sidestepped the creepy romance (but is still a great film).

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