20 Dark Romantic Films That Are Worth Your Time
It’s hard to mention the genre Romantic-Comedy, let alone the NewSpeak term “Rom-Com”, and not gain a shudder or scream from most of the male species. Sugarcoated images of Meg Ryan, Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock flood the mind with contrived plots, unrealistic scenarios and all too many storybook happy endings.
Sure, they make some people feel good, warm and fuzzy, but more often than not they are hardly original and the chemistry between the characters is flat with scripts that aren’t really funny. They are usually reserved for “Date Nights” or “Lonely Times”. The Romantic Films that aren’t Cookie-Cutter-Commodities (or Cookie-Cutter-Comedies) have the tendency to fall under the radar, get limited release and don’t always end with happiness.
The following list contains unconventional romantic themes and not all of them are comedic, while some borderline on tragic. A few are rooted in fantasy but strike up emotions and/or situations that many can relate to, such as obtaining the impossible, laments of a lost love or holding in a difficult secret.
The pair at the center of the story usually have many adversaries or enemies who are trying to prevent their union. Love is never perfect or without obstructions and there is no suspension of disbelief when it comes the reality of rejection from a romantic interest. These films aren’t for all tastes, either mainstream or independent, but leave lasting impressions.
1. Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990)
Recently released from a psychiatric ward and deemed sane, Ricky (Antonio Banderas) heads to a movie set find Marina (Victoria Abril), a former porn star turned actress who is also a junky. They had a one night stand together when he escaped the asylum, however, she has no recollection of the experience, but he is obsessed with the idea that she will fall in love with him.
The director of the horror feature, Maximo, is confined to a wheelchair and is very protective of his leading lady while harboring a sexual attraction towards her with the realization that this will be his last film. After the shoot, she returns home only to find Ricky, who forces his way in, knocks her out, tapes her mouth and bounds her with rope.
Spanish director, Pedro Almodovar’s script combines elements of romantic comedy and horror for a “Dark Fairytale Love Story”. Released in 1990, “Atame” became highest grossing film in its home country of Spain along with other parts of Europe and received much critical acclaim. Upon making its way to America, it was subjected to much controversy.
The MPAA gave it an “X” rating for its depiction of sexuality and sadomasochism, but Miramax Studios filed a lawsuit against them with no avail. “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” was released in the States unrated (now listed as NC-17), but seemed to offend many viewers with its scenes of masturbation, urination and the victimization towards women.
2. Wild at Heart (1990)
In Cape Fear, North Carolina, after killing a man in self-defense, Sailor (Nicholas Cage) is imprisoned. Upon being released years later, his devoted lover, Lula (Laura Dern), picks him up and they set out to California, breaking his parole. Marietta (Dianne Ladd), Lula’s domineering and psychotic mother, has a vendetta against Sailor and separately assigns two of her lovers, a detective and a gangster, to bring her daughter back home.
While on the open road, all doesn’t go according to plan for Sailor and Lula. They witness a horrible car accident which they believe puts a curse on them. Running short on funds, they stop off in a trailer park in Texas where they meet a gangster named Bobby Peru (Williem Dafoe) who talks him into robbing a bank.
Based on Barry Gifford’s 1989 “Neo-Noir” novel of the same title, director David Lynch’s script makes minor changes such as the ending, connections to “The Wizard of Oz” to the lead characters being inspired by Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. Test audiences reacted poorly and the MPAA threatened it with “X” rating for excessive violence unless it was edited.
Debuting at Cannes in 1990, the audience cheered, however critics were mixed or negative. Gifford, the author, would go record to say that the film version of his book was “a fantastic, dark musical comedy”.
3. The Favour, The Watch and The Very Big Fish (1991)
In Paris, Louis (Bob Hoskins) is a middle aged photographer for religious portraits and biblical scenes. He lives with his psychotic sister and is worried about losing his job if he can’t find somebody to pose as Jesus. His friend is supposed to be John the Baptist in another shoot, but has fallen ill and asks if he’ll fill in for a dubbing gig.
Reluctant, yet strapped for cash, Louis complies. When he shows up to the studio, he is paired off with a beautiful woman named Sybil (Natasha Richardson) for a pornographic film’s voice over-dub. Upon impressing his partner, afterwards they have dinner and she tells the story of a gold watch and her last lover. The Pianist (Jeff Goldblum) is serving time for attempted murder while in a jealous rage and is hours away from being released.
The next day, Louis arrives at the prison, but ends up following the wrong ex-con. Only later through a random act of fate, does the Pianist shows up at the photographer’s studio and resembles Jesus in his appearance, demeanor and quite possibly through his actions.
Based on a novel by French author Marcel Ayme, the Polish-Australian screenwriter and director, Ben Lewin’s film is a light-hearted romance with dark themes involving redemption, forgiveness and passionate companionship. Despite having one of the best fake orgasm scenes in a mainstream, yet European feature, it is a witty and charming comedy that will appeal those who are religious or not.
4. Dracula (1992)
Hungarian warrior Vlad Dracula (Gary Oldman) returns home from a victorious battle against the Turks in 1462 to find his wife, Elisabeta has committed suicide and her soul is damned for eternity. Angered, he renounces god, desecrates the church and declares to rise from the grave to avenge her death.
Advance forward to 1897, an English solicitor, Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) travels to Transylvania to arrange Count Dracula’s real estate acquisition in London after his predecessor, Renfield (Tom Waits), went insane. Seeing a picture of Harker’s fiancée, Mina (Winona Ryder), whom resembles his beloved Elisabeta, the Count sends his brides to keep prisoner while he sails to England with boxes of native soil to seduce Mina.
Director Francis Ford Coppola’s adaption of James V. Hart’s screenplay and Bram Stoker’s 1897 Gothic novel is stunning visually and atmospheric. The costumes and subliminal images are captivating even though some of the performances are less than stellar. Gary Oldman shines as the dark, tormented Count Dracula/Vlad The Impaler, while Anthony Hopkins is cunning and comical as Dr. Van Helsing.
Much negative criticism went towards the casting of Keanu Reeves, but Coppola claimed he needed a “hot young actor” to attract a female audience. Despite a crowded storyline and a few plotline liberties, “Dracula” was a box office hit and the winner of several awards for Best Make-Up, Best Costume Design, Best Sound editing and more.
5. Love and A .45 (1994)
Deep in the heart of Texas, a career convenience store hold-up artist Watty (Gil Bellows) and his fiancée Starlene (Renee Zellweger) are planning one last big score before retiring from the business. When two speed freak mobsters show up to collect on the money he borrowed an engagement ring, Watty assures them the payment will come soon.
Then Billy Mack (Rory Cochrane), a drug addled, former prison buddy shows up with a plan to rob a store that his girlfriend works at, which goes horribly wrong despite making off with the money. Fearing for his life, Watty stabs Billy Mack and runs off to his trailer park home to retrieve Starlene.
While attempting to pack for an escape to Mexico, they are confronted by two corrupt policemen and eventually the officers are killed. As the couple make their way towards the border, they are pursued by Billy Mack, the two mobsters and even more police.
Texan writer/director C.M. Talkington’s 1994 tale of two lovers on the run received limited recognition, perhaps having been over-shadowed by “Natural Born Killers” which had come out a few months prior. Regardless, it is full of excitement with tongue in cheek, gritty humor and action.
Colorful characters like Dinosaur Bob (Jeffery Combs), Ranger X (Michael Bowen) and Vergil Cheatham (Peter Fonda, paying a tribute to his “Easy Rider” role). It also contains a great soundtrack featuring Reverend Horton Heat (whom also makes appearance during a strip scene), Butthole Surfers, Tom Verlaine and Johnny Cash.
6. Sweethearts (1997)
Arliss (Mitch Rouse) is overly neurotic with OCD and is going on a blind date. When he arrives at an independent coffee shop, Jasmine (Janeane Garofalo) corners him into an endless stream of conversation and criticism. Much to his dismay, Arliss realizes that she is the one who responded to his ad in the personals.
However, Jasmine is a suicidal manic depressive and packing a loaded gun on the eve of her thirty-first and last birthday. Despite the instability the situation, the pair bond with each other, but she remains focused on the original plan.
Although never released theatrically in its home country of America, “Sweethearts”, written and directed by Aleks Horvat received a limited screening in the UK. The dark and depressive comedy also had trailer that gave the impression that it was a quirky light-hearted romance, when the story was almost the exact opposite.
Comedian and actress Janeane Garofalo gives a wonderful portrayal of an unhinged woman who is charming yet frustratingly scary. Hardly a feel good feature, but not without some sense of compassion for those whom suffer from extreme forms of mental illness.