love in horror movies

Given my thematic body of work here on /Film thus far, I’m sure you’re expecting a February essay that analyzes Valentine’s rosiness through a horror lens. Have I already become that predictable? Yeah. Let’s absolutely talk about why love and horror create the most exquisite, developmentally rich bond(age)s in all the genre world. Why? Simple: there’s no scarier plot device in horror than “love.”

Love is often described as many things – a battlefield (Pat Benatar), the answer (John Lennon), a motherf*#@er (Old School) – but cinema audiences largely attribute love’s on-screen representation to Gerard Butler rom-coms or Hallmark tear-jerkers. Guy meets girl unexpectedly, they fall in love, happily ever afters all around. If it’s December, said man is probably also Santa in disguise. Picture perfect, just as in reality. Right?

For all its butterflies and “You complete me” sentiments, love can also be a savage monstrosity that tears at our gushy insides. This is where, amidst a sea of overtly-saccharine lifestyle pornography pics, the horror genre keeps us in check – unafraid of love’s flip-side intimidation. Call me a cynic, emotionless, or unsalvageable if you must, but to me, we rob ourselves of crucial understanding by not facing our fears and exploring the shadows light doth create.

I see three distinct talking points when it comes to “love-based” horror. You’ve got “Devotion,” “Loss,” and “Rejection.” Devotion comes with blinders, which turn characters into accomplices when ensnared in “I’d rather die with you than live alone” abandonment. Loss can be about protection – e.g. a boyfriend dying in a slasher film so his girlfriend lives – or the death of a loved one that sends someone spiraling into madness (maybe murderous, maybe self-destructive). Then “Rejection” – more far-flung, but what happens when young love is declined and humiliation sparks a breakdown?

Devotion

Let’s first start with “Devotion,” looking no further than a toxic example from last year – Ben Young’s outstandingly tense Hounds Of Love. In the 1987-set film, John White (Stephen Curry) is a serial murderer/rapist who kidnaps underaged playthings while his wife, Evelyn (Emma Booth), aids as an accomplice. John carries out this OCD routine of abuse, but Evelyn is not forced (per say) to assist – she does so driven by the fear of losing her husband. John and Evelyn’s “fading” relationship climaxes whenever the next girl finds herself tied to their guest bed, as a blend of jealousy and intimate competition turns Evelyn from housewife to sidekick. Someone so lovesick that she’d acid-wash teenagers just to keep her marriage alive, “accepting” of John’s malicious agenda.

In a romantic comedy, this kind of behavior might be shown by a stalker ex who keeps appearing at date locations unannounced. An obsessive throwaway arc used for laughs. It’d be slight, whereas genre honesty coaxes an emotion’s true potential from neglected dualities. This is wrong and in no way do I think Hounds Of Love is a touchstone relationship tale.

That said, the understanding and tragedy of Evelyn’s choices shine a spotlight on love’s limitless power; a hypnotizing flutter that makes us do crazy things. Love complicates what’s known to be sadistic and cruel, only because – heaven forbid – we sympathize with a lackey who fantasises about the picket-fence life she’s continually promised (and holy smokes, what a performance by Booth).

Love is complicated. Love is messy. With horror frameworkings, filmmakers actually get to bring these sentiments to life. We don’t have to singularly talk about marital relationships, either – family devotions are equally as strong.

For instance, take Sean Byrne’s The Loved Ones. A papa’s girl – “Princess” Lola played by Robin McLeavy – demands “Daddy” (John Brumpton) chaperone her torture-themed, in-home prom. This means abducting Brent (Xavier Samuel), injecting his voice box with bleach, lobotomies, a pit of starving mutants, and more – anything for “Princess,” as a good father provides. Except a good father doesn’t maim teenage boys? Healthy devotion is necessary and tender, but obsessive overboarding can lead to disastrous breakdowns, or better yet, clearly allow one party to claim advantage over weaker “prey” – something we don’t think about unless extremes are explored.

Love and manipulation, hand-in-hand. Don’t say this isn’t a relatable concern, either – Catfish still airs on MTV for a reason.

It’s good to explore tangible fears and remind ourselves of human complications. Mainstream Hollywood has a tendency of brainwashing audiences into thinking majority experiences are “right” or “normal.” Explorative genre content emerges as the black sheep waving in the back row, providing reassurance. “It’s okay to be scared, too.” Relief that uncertainty is not a bad thing, and questions are healthy. We have brains, we’re allowed to use them.

Loss

So what about loss? It’s the most obvious route, because stakes can easily be raised by the infliction of love unto male or female companions. What slasher film would willfully ignore the opportunity for a boyfriend to try and save his girlfriend (or vice versa)? Or maybe in a zombie movie, one victim is saved but must watch their lover get torn to bits by the hungry undead. Is it easy? Of course. Considered a cop out? Maybe at times. Instant remorse and tragedy? Just add gore.

When thinking about loss, I return to the family arc. Specifically a parent’s love for their kin. Look at Bryan Bertino’s The Monster, a tremendously heartfelt offering hinged on Zoe Kazan’s fight to keep her child alive. A mama bear standing face to face with an unidentified foe, willing to die if that means her offspring escapes uscathed. Kazan’s character refuses to let her daughter be harmed in the slightest – let alone killed – and is driven by unconditional love of the purest form. A film reliant on relationship, elevated by compassion, felt on levels that resonate through parents and protectors alike.

Of course, sometimes baby bites the dust. This is the horror genre, after all. Most films do tend to strap safety pads on their underage characters, but man, John Gulager’s Feast showcases what happens when love lost (of the family variety) goes for broke.

A single mother, Tuffy (Krista Allen), is forced to watch her son get devoured by a beastly creature, his chewed bits then vomited all over Judah Friedlander’s “Beer Guy.” A  “WTF” gag at first glance, but this moment shapes and restructures Tuffy’s now rage-fueled arc. It’s bad enough a child dies – and kudos to Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan for gambling on the slaughter of an innocent lamb – but Tuffy’s forced to process the whole soul-gutting ordeal second by second, saving her life in the end (as she fights her way through alien/monster/asshole party crashers with nothing to live for).

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