10 great romantic horror films

‘Lovecraft meets Linklater’ in the new part horror/part love story rulebreaker Spring. It joins a legion of memorable horror films with an often deadly romantic side.

Michael Blyth
Updated:

Spring (2014)

Spring (2014)

Is there anything more terrifying than falling in love? Your heart starts to pound, your palms begin to sweat, you can’t sleep…

Much like those special feelings that come with a new romantic dalliance, watching a horror film can also feel like venturing into the unknown. You go in blind, and just hope that you make it out in one piece. It’s no wonder that romance and horror make such perfect cinematic bedfellows.

With their latest film, Spring, which turned more than a few heads when it screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival’s Cult strand in October 2014, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have crafted a romantic nightmare so successful in blending genres that it has been compellingly described as “Lovecraft meets Linklater”. The film follows Evan, a young man reeling from the death of his mother, who impulsively flees his home for Italy. Once there he meets a beautiful and mysterious young woman named Nadia, but as the pair become increasingly close, it becomes clear that Nadia has a dark and surprising secret that will test his feelings in ways he never imagined.

A wildly imaginative and effortlessly surprising piece of work, Spring is a thrilling exploration of just how frightening love can be, and with this in mind let us take a look back at some other horror films with a romantic streak.

They say love hurts. Turns out it can do a lot worse than that.

The Mummy (1932)

Director Karl Freund

The Mummy (1933)

The Mummy (1933)

While several of Universal’s monster movies convincingly double up as love stories (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Bride of Frankenstein and Son of Dracula being some of the more heart-rending examples), it was Karl Freund’s tale of ancient Egyptian priest Imhotep that remains the studio’s most sweepingly romantic entry. Upon discovering the tomb of a 3,700-year-old cadaver, a team of British archaeologists inadvertently revive the long dead deity. Now released, the mummy is free to pursue a young woman he believes to be the reincarnation of his long-lost love, Princess Anck-es-en-Amon.

Somewhat tame in the fright stakes, The Mummy is in many ways most successful as an epic, century-spanning romance, rather than as a traditional horror film (although the subtextual dabblings in necrophilia do maintain the power to shock). Placing the idealistic notion that love transcends time very much at the centre, Im-ho-tep remains as one of cinema’s most dependable romantic leads, hopelessly devoted to the one he loves.

Mahal (1949)

Director Kamal Amrohi

Mahal (1949)

Mahal (1949)

Hugely successful in its native India upon its release in 1949, Kamal Amrohi’s ghostly tale of reincarnation is commonly regarded as the first Bollywood horror film, introducing an exciting new aesthetic to Hindi cinema of the period. After moving into a mansion with a reportedly tragic history, a man becomes obsessed with the beautiful ghost of a former resident. Like a Hindi retelling of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), this romantic fantasy is rooted in a gothic tradition and does boast the occasional spooky moment, although it is by no means a film designed to instil terror in its viewer.

Perhaps more fittingly described as a supernatural suspense drama rather than an out-and-out horror film, Mahal is a work of exquisite beauty, its unhurried approach allowing us to wallow in the ethereal elegance of its central romance and haunting melodies of its celebrated songs.

Buio Omega (1979)

Director Joe D’Amato

Buio Omega (1979)

Buio Omega (1979)

Also known under a host of alternative titles including Beyond the Darkness and Blue Holocaust, Joe D’Amato’s finest offering is just about the most romantic piece of gruelling exploitation ever committed to celluloid. Not for the faint of heart (or delicate of stomach), the film tells the story of a wealthy taxidermist who is left devastated by the death of his girlfriend at the voodoo-practicing hands of his maniacal housekeeper. Unable to come to terms with her passing, our heartbroken hero exhumes his beloved’s body, gives it a good clean and brings it home to live with him. Naturally, a whole host of horrors ensue.

Repeatedly banned and censored since release, this is a sleazy (and often downright nasty) piece of work, which despite the viscera on screen, is also a highly affecting study of deranged and unruly love. They say that romance is dead. This one proves it.

The Fly (1986)

Director David Cronenberg

The Fly (1986)

The Fly (1986)

In his inspired revision of the 1958 monster movie of the same name, body-horror connoisseur David Cronenberg not only upped the gore quota and modernised the science, he also re-imagined the film as an unexpectedly tender and accessible love story. While working on a revolutionary teleportation device, brilliant but reclusive scientist Seth Brundle begins a love affair with journalist Veronica Quaife. But when an experiment goes horribly wrong, Seth begins a monstrous transformation which Veronica is powerless to stop.

Theorists have read the film as an allegory for addiction or a reaction to the Aids epidemic of the 1980s, but The Fly is perhaps most eloquent in its depiction of the agonies of love and the crushing disintegration of a relationship. The chemistry between the ill-fated couple is palpable (stars Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis were dating at the time of filming), while Cronenberg’s typically methodical direction gives way to flat-out melodrama by the film’s tragic denouement.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Director Francis Ford Coppola

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Although Francis Ford Coppola’s ravishing vision of Bram Stoker’s gothic masterpiece appeared largely faithful to the original text, the director (and screenwriter James V. Hart ) did take one or two narrative liberties, most notably in the relationship between Count Dracula and his beloved Mina. While Stoker made no reference to a history between the pair, the film has Mina as the reincarnation of his dead wife Elisabeta. As such, while previous incarnations of the count have positioned him as a saucy lothario, happy to neck whatever young beauty might cross his path, Coppola has him as a hopeless romantic, driven by his heart rather than his fangs, and forever yearning for the love he once lost.

While this added plot point might seem a harmless addition, it does fundamentally alter the entire text, making Dracula a figure to sympathise with as opposed to fear. Perhaps Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula might have been a more appropriate title?

Candyman (1992)

Director Bernard Rose

Candyman (1992)

Candyman (1992)

Like The Mummy or Bram Stoker’s Dracula before it, Bernard Rose’s modern folktale offered horror cinema another broken-hearted anti-hero, whose every action is the result of a love lost and harboured for many years. Our killer this time is Daniel Robitaille, better known as Candyman, the son of a slave who was executed for impregnating a wealthy white woman during the American civil war. Years later, Candyman has become the stuff of urban legend, a hook-handed killer who supposedly appears if you repeat his name in a mirror.

The stalk-and-slash plotline may initially appear the stuff of familiar genre fare, but Rose’s masterful adaptation of the Clive Barker short story ‘The Forbidden’ is a refreshingly cerebral work, addressing issues of race, urban regeneration and the fundamental nature of fear. And among all this is Candyman himself, an endlessly tragic figure who was destroyed by love, and will stop at nothing to find it again.

Return of the Living Dead 3 (1993)

Director Brian Yuzna

Return of the Living Dead 3 (1993)

Return of the Living Dead 3 (1993)

As many horror films have taught us, death is not necessarily a good reason to end a relationship, and the third entry to the Return of the Living Dead franchise aptly demonstrates that true love never really dies. Eschewing the broad comedy of its predecessors in favour of a more melancholic tone, Brian Yuzna’s undead melodrama is one of the genre’s great underrated love stories.

Having witnessed a government operation in which the dead are being brought back to life, a grieving young man breaks into the secret laboratory to re-animate his recently deceased girlfriend. Unfortunately, her return brings with it a newfound appetite for human flesh. Loosely inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (only with an added fondness for human brains), Yuzna’s tale of two star-crossed lovers is a surprisingly sweet exploration of what it really means to stick with someone in sickness and in health.

Bride of Chucky (1998)

Director Ronny Yu

Bride of Chucky (1998)

Bride of Chucky (1998)

Be it Bonnie and Clyde (1967) or Badlands (1973), True Romance (1993) or Natural Born Killers (1994), the homicidal couple is a long established cinematic tradition, offering up some of the most interesting and transgressive portrayals of on-screen love. But has there ever been a pair of killers more deranged, more wild and more crazy in love than Chucky and Tiffany?

Picking up where Child’s Play 3 (1991) left off, but boldly ditching the seriousness of its predecessors, the kitsch and campy Bride of Chucky sees everyone’s favourite Good Guy team up with his ex-lover to embark on a killing spree across Route 66. Although the basic premise is far-fetched, what makes the film so refreshing is the interaction between the diminutive lovers; like any regular couple they share similar hobbies and interests, they bicker and make up, and in one truly eye-popping scene, they even have sex. The much-maligned follow up, Seed of Chucky (2004), ramped up the comedy even further, losing the magic in the process, but this one stands as horror’s wackiest romance.

Thirst (2009)

Director Park Chan-wook

Thirst (2009)

Thirst (2009)

Of all the monsters in horror cinema, none blur the line between fear and eroticism quite like the vampire. But never has vampiric sensuality been explored so tangibly as in Park Chan-wook’s libidinous Thirst, which follows the transformation of a respected priest into a ravenous creature of the night. Following a blood transfusion that brings him back from the brink of death, Sang-hyun returns to health with a craving for blood, and an insatiable lust for his friend’s wife.

Park’s existential addition to the vampire genre has much in the way of surprises, but perhaps the most striking element is the romantic connection at the centre. So rarely has romantic yearning and carnal attraction been rendered with such ferocity and frenzied immediacy. Watching these lovers explore and feast on each other’s bodies, the bloodlust of a vampire becomes the perfect metaphor for rampant sexual desire, proving how lust can make a monster of any of us.

Red, White and Blue (2010)

Director Simon Rumley

Red, White and Blue (2010)

Red, White and Blue (2010)

Morally complex and emotionally rich, Brit filmmaker Simon Rumley’s follow-up to his acclaimed debut The Living and the Dead (2006) tells the sad story of Erica, a disaffected and damaged young woman in Austin, Texas, who spends her days sleepwalking between one anonymous sexual encounter and the next. Her life seems to take a positive turn when she befriends a sociopathic army vet named Nate, but a series of tragic events soon end in destruction and violence.

Pulling no punches in its harsh depiction of unconditional love in a hopeless world, this often gruelling experience consistently takes its viewer off guard. Part love story, part revenge thriller, with a dash of slasher thrown in for good measure, Red, White and Blue may appear an unrelentingly bleak piece of work, but it is one that never stops believing in the redemptive powers of love, and hides a huge heart that beats beneath its brutal surface.

Your suggestions

Let the Right One In (2008)

Let the Right One In (2008)

To our list above, you voted to add these great loved-up horror films…

  1. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008)
  2. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2013)
  3. The Hunger (Tony Scott, 1983)
  4. Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942)
  5. Possession (Andrzej Zulawski, 1981)
  6. The Abominable Dr. Phibes (Robert Fuest, 1971)
  7. A Girl Walks Home Alone Late at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014)
  8. A Chinese Ghost Story (Ching Siu-tung, 1987)
  9. Cat People (Paul Schrader, 1982)
  10. Daughters of Darkness (Harry Kümel, 1971)

Spring’s co-director Justin Benson liked out list…

…but what did you make of it? When we asked you what we’d missed out, one film kept cropping up again and again: Tomas Alfredson’s much-loved tale of teen vampire turmoil, Let the Right One In. There was also lots of support for the loved-up vampire immortals played by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, with both versions of Cat People (the 1942 original and its 1982 remake) also making this week’s readers’ top 10.

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