I don’t know about you, but my idea of a perfect date night is indulging in a round of classy cocktails, enjoying a nice dinner, and afterward, maybe going out to a bar or club. Wherever the course of the date takes me, it almost always ends with watching a film of some kind. And I almost always want to watch a horror film. Especially a romantic horror film.
Horror films are perfect for dates. It’s fun to be scared together, especially when I have an excuse to hold my date close and bury my face in his shoulder when I get scared. You can learn a lot about someone by his or her tastes in horror. Not to mention that horror movies, in general, offer irreverent and refreshing interpretations of the human fascination with desire, lust, longing, and romance, as well as the way fear pervades our obsession with love.
Since Valentine’s Day is fast approaching, I wanted to think about which horror movies I might watch as part of my Valentine’s plans. I’m not a big fan of the conventional rom-com, but that doesn’t mean I can’t find a good scary movie that happens to be about romance.
In keeping with the recently released film Nina Forever, I wanted something about love and romance, but as seen through a lens of horror. It only seems natural to pair love and fear, since those are two of the oldest emotions and two of the most powerful motivators for human beings since, well, forever. They’re so closely linked that people often end up confusing the two, failing to see where one ends, and the other begins.
So I’ve compiled this list of 9 horror films that all examine themes of love, specially tailored for the fan who craves a bit of tenderness, romance, jealousy, possessiveness, and obsession with her horror this Valentine’s Day. These films range from old-school ghost tales to experimental French horror to a sweet and modern zombie romance. A lot of these can be found online or through streaming, which makes it easy for you to have your very own Valentine’s Horror Movie Marathon.
That’s how I’ll be spending my Valentine’s Day.
- The Innocents (1961)
Based on Henry James’ The Turning of the Screw, this film is an old school horror film about ghosts and madness. Miss Giddens was hired by a wealthy man to serve as a governess for his niece and nephew. When she arrives at the Bly estate, things go smoothly. The children are lonely but sweet, the house labyrinthine but grand. But it doesn’t take long for Miss Giddens to feel that something is very wrong. Sometimes Miss Giddens catches the children saying and doing…odd things. Soon Miss Giddens learns of the depraved romance between Miss Jessel, the previous governess, and Quint, the uncle’s valet. The ghosts of the doomed lovers haunt the grounds of the estate, tormenting Miss Giddens as she struggles to protect the children. Are the ghosts trying to possess the children so they can carry on their violent, abusive relationship? Or is Miss Giddens going mad, projecting her sexual insecurities upon the children? Or both?
This is a traditional ghost story, and as such falls into the psychological horror subgenre. It’s not violent or bloody, but it’s atmospheric, moody, and disturbing. I’ll admit, there’s one particular scene that scares me half to death every damn time I watch this movie, even though I know it’s coming! I won’t tell you what it is, but this is a perfect date movie because it gives everyone an excellent excuse to cuddle together on the couch.
- Daughters of Darkness (1971)
Stefan and Valeria are newlyweds on their honeymoon in Belgium. Everything seems to be going well, despite Stefan’s weird attachment to his mother, but Valerie doesn’t have much to complain about. Because it’s the off-season, their grand, seaside hotel is largely empty, giving them plenty of time to spend together. That is, until a glamorous cipher of a woman, Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Bathory (no subtly with the names in this movie) arrives with her pretty secretary, Ilona. The countess and her secretary waste no time in exploiting the cracks in the couple’s relationship, taking turns seducing and manipulating Stefan and Valerie. Tensions rise, as does the body count, and Stefan and Valerie realize they can no longer trust each other.
This film may seem like your average 70s-lesbian-vampire-film, but it’s so much more than that. This movie embodies all of my favorite things from vampire films—eroticism, stylish sets and costumes, manipulative yet vulnerable characters, morbid and lustful secrets, and vampire seduction. The vampire subgenre seems to be uniquely positioned to explore the tensions in every relationship and the lies people tell their loved ones. Vampires have an uncanny ability to bring lingering, underlying issues bubbling up to the surface.
When you watch it with your Valentine, try not to be suspicious of his or her true motivations. Just keep telling yourself that it’s just a movie.
- Ganja & Hess (1973)
Dr. Hess Green is a black anthropologist who has achieved acclaim and wealth in his career. When the film opens, his current work focuses on the storied African nation of the Mythrians, who drank blood. During a research session involving a Mythrian ceremonial dagger, Dr. Green’s assistant suffers a mental breakdown and stabs Dr. Green with the dagger. The assistant then commits suicide, and Dr. Green transforms into an immortal vampire.
Soon, Ganja Meda, the estranged wife of his assistant, comes looking for her husband. They fall in love with each other and marry. Dr. Green even transforms her into a vampire so that they will always be together. But life as a vampire weighs on the couple. Will their love survive when seduction and murder are necessary evils?
I hadn’t heard of this film until recently, so I’ve decided that this will be my official selection for Valentine’s horror romance movie. I’m excited to see how this film handles love and death in the context of what was supposed to be a vampire blaxploitation film but achieved something else above and beyond. I’ve read reviews that say the film explores themes of race, class tensions, social divisions, addiction, gender relations, and religion. And not that official recognition is necessary to make a great film, but Ganja & Hess won the critics’ choice awards at the Cannes Film Festival in 1973.
How have I not heard of this film before?!?! It sounds really good!
- Nosferatu The Vampyre (1979)
A young estate agent, Jonathan Harker, is sent to remote Transylvania to conduct business with Count Dracula. He promises his lovely wife, Lucy, that he will return shortly. However, when he arrives at Dracula’s castle, Jonathan realizes that his client is a centuries-old vampire, bent on wreaking havoc in Western Europe. The menacing but lonely vampire locks Jonathan in his castle and travels to Jonathan’s home country, where he intends to kill off whole towns while attempting to woo Lucy. Once Dracula arrives, it falls to Lucy to defeat the vampire.
While this film is a remake of the iconic Nosferatu (which was itself an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Novel Dracula), I have to point out that this version is a lot more nuanced in its portrayal of love and relationships. This version of Count Dracula is scary but also pathetic. He is awkward and reclusive, craving love and companionship. It was strange at first to watch a vampire film where the vampire wasn’t a suave lady-killer, but it works in this film. You feel a little bit bad for him since he’s been isolated for so long and because he can’t convince Lucy to love him. Being a horrible murderous vampire makes it challenging to meet ladies.
The film is a worthwhile watch, especially for its depictions of how isolated and vulnerable people can become in the name of love.
- Possession (1981)
Sometimes, the best depictions of love and longing occur as a romantic relationship disintegrates. In Possession, Anna (played by film legend Isabelle Adjani) tells her husband that she’s having an affair and wants a divorce. This confession sets off a string of violent encounters between Anna, Mark, and many other people who Anna and Mark unwittingly drag into their decaying relationship. Things go from violent to horrifying to surreal and back to horrifying again.
The less you know going into this movie, the better. Don’t worry–it’s an engrossing, utterly compelling film with magnificent performances from the leads. And there are several scenes that I’m sure warmed David Cronenberg’s heart. You may not understand everything you’ve watched, but think of the hours of conversation you and your Valentine will have after watching Possession!
- The Vanishing (1988)
In researching this film for this list, I stumbled across something I never knew about this horrifying film—Stanley Kubrick, after seeing this film, called up director George Sluizer and told him that this was the most terrifying film he’d ever seen, even more so than his own The Shining.
And it certainly is a terrifying film—a young Dutch couple, Rex and Saskia, are enjoying their road trip together when they make a fateful stop at a rest stop. Saskia goes in to buy some drinks and never returns.
Years later, Rex is obsessed with finding out what happened to Saskia. A man, Raymond, who claims to have kidnapped Saskia contacts Rex and offers to tell him everything about his crime. He even promises to show him exactly what happened to Saskia. And the truth is more terrible than Rex could ever have prepared himself for.
It certainly is a disturbing, messed up film, especially how the film tells its story through the eyes of both Rex and Raymond. You can’t look away as the tension steadily increases and culminates in a shocking and sorrowful ending.
Side note: Don’t confuse this version of The Vanishing with its 1993 remake of the same name starring Jeff Bridges, Keifer Sutherland, and Sandra Bullock. It’s nowhere close to being as good as the original.
- Let the right one in (2008)
One of my favorites, Let The Right One In tells the poignant story of Oskar and Eli. Oskar is a desperately lonely boy, who faces constant torment from bullies at school and fantasizes about the gruesome ways he wants to punish them. Eli is a mysterious, intimidating girl who just moved into the same apartment building with an older man who may or may not be her father. As they get to know each other, they form a connection so strong and deep neither Eli’s secret nor the Oskar’s bullies will succeed in separating them.
This movie is weird in the best ways—it’s a gorgeous movie with an oddly sweet story, complete with moments of real horror and dread. It’s perfect for curling up on the couch with your sweetie, contemplating all the ways you accept each other’s faults, quirks, and murderous tendencies.
- Thirst (2009)
Thirst is about Sang-Hyun, a devout Catholic priest who has committed his life to his faith, despite harboring strong feelings of spiritual doubt. After he agrees to undergo a medical experiment designed to cure the highly contagious (and highly fictional) Emmanuel Virus, he is transformed into a vampire. Sang-Hyun’s existential crisis worsens, what with his newfound superhuman strength, his insatiable bloodlust, and his sinful new desire for Tae-Ju, the wife of his childhood friend. As he continues his murderous and adulterous spiral, how much longer will he be able to tell himself that he can’t control his impulses?
Even though this film was probably the most uncomfortable and sexually eerie movies I’ve seen, I thought Thirst was a brilliant romantic horror film. It’s got longing and guilt along with anger and fear. It’s an excellent movie, and more people need to see it.
- Warm Bodies (2013)
Warm Bodies follows a zombie, R, as he goes about his dull zombie days in the wasteland. He doesn’t remember much about his life before he turned into a zombie, which is why he particularly enjoys eating the brains of his victims. By ingesting their brains, he can experience their memories and feel somewhat alive again.
While hunting for fresh brains one day, R encounters a group of humans. After eating a young man’s brain, he experiences the man’s memories of his girlfriend, Julie. For reasons he can’t explain, R falls in love with Julie and resolves to protect her from the other zombies, as well as himself.
I have a soft spot for this film, probably because it captures how wonderful it feels to fall in love with someone, especially when your life isn’t going so well. Love can be the bright spot, the thing that makes you come alive again. Literally.
This is a good horror romance for zombie fans and non-horror fans alike. Think of it as the horror romance movie to bring together couples that can’t watch horror movies together. It’s sweet, funny, and a pretty solidly entertaining film. More importantly, it’s nowhere near as heavy as some of the films on this list.
Did you know an excellent romantic horror film that didn’t make my list? Tell me about it in the comments!
Happy Valentine’s Day!