Passion and anguish, true love lost and mourned over oceans of time, unrequited love felt so strongly that it drives one to darkness and despair…ah, the horror of love. These sentiments may not appear in the glittery pink and red Hallmark cards littering your local supermarket, but in a year where del Toro’s strange and unusual love story The Shape of Water swept the Oscar nominations, this Valentine’s Day deserves something a little different, a little darker, a little more…gothic.
Gothic isn’t always spiderwebs and haunted mansions or that weird kid in the back of your classroom. From poetic bloodlust to loneliness so crippling you can almost feel your chest caving in, from Universal Monsters and Goblin Kings, from headless horseman to robots, the romances of this list take the phrase “it’s better to have loved and lost” to tortuous new heights. They embody the characteristics of a Victorian era genre full of mystery, desire, and the macabre, more tantalizing and real than a thousand shades of grey.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Based on an actual Victorian era gothic romance novel, Bram Stoker’s Dracula marries one of the coolest casts around (Gary Oldman, Keanu Reeves, Anthony Hopkins, and Tom Waits, to name a few) with one of the most passionately disturbing romances of all time. Like listening to a Shakespearean sonnet, it takes a moment to fall under Dracula’s trance, particularly now that some of its visual techniques have not aged gracefully, but with plenty of velvet, candles, lots of fog, and the dramatic billowing of delicate fabrics in the eerie winds, Dracula certainly nails down the gothic vibe.
However, even if you strip away all of that pomp and circumstance, the bones of the story still produce one of the most heart-wrenching, world shattering, death-defying love stories of all time. The love triangles of gothic romances are far more intense and all-consuming than the love triangles of romantic comedies, and story of Dracula (Gary Oldman), Mina, the reincarnation of his true love Elisabeth (both played by Winona Ryder), and Mina’s sensible and modest fiancé Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) is a doozy. If you have found your true love in life, you can almost relate to Dracula’s pain of losing his, and when faced with the seductive charm of this centuries-old prince, can you really blame Mina for finding him a little bit more enticing than the sensible Jonathan? Can you forgive evil for the sake of love? This film is as sexy and romantic as it is terrifying and thought-provoking.
Dealings with death, a connection to ghosts, powerful love that transcends time, and plenty of mystery: these are the characteristics of gothic storytelling. They also happen to describe Neil Burger’s 2006 film The Illusionist. Childhood sweethearts in turn-of-the-century Austria, Eduard and Sophie, reunite after being forcibly separated because of their vastly different social classes. Now known as Eisenheim the Illusionist, Eduard (Edward Norton), finds himself an enemy of Crown Prince Leopold, his beloved Sophie’s (Jessica Biel) egomaniacal fiancé. After Sophie’s tragic murder, Eisenhiem, heartbroken and angry, begins to taunt the Prince, whom he believes to be the murderer, by entertaining the crowd with a new kind of show…talking to the dead.
Even though it has one of the happier endings on this list, The Illusionist definitely takes true love through the path of most resistance. Edward Norton is brilliant as the tortured magician that has lost his chance at happiness not once but twice, and now seemingly forever. While there may not be haunted castles or a large fog budget and there are no supernatural monsters to be seen, The Illusionist evokes the deep passion and dark mystery of the gothic genre while laying bare the side of love so raw it is stronger than life itself.
Dark secrets, haunted woods, and a series of dreadful murders! Sleepy Hollow is an American gothic romance, taking place far from the enchanting lands of 19th century Europe. Based on the short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving, this Tim Burton adaptation is a palpable horror film, with enough cheekiness and budding romance to balance some of the more sinister and bloody elements of this twisted tale. While the story of a headless horseman decapitating townspeople might seem far from the Valentine’s Day genre, the perfectly awkward and endearing flirtations between the spirited Katrina Van Tassel (Christina Ricci) and the sensible skeptic Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) are positively delightful against the backdrop of this spooky colony that seems to have more conspiracies and secrets than heads. It is enough to make you go ‘awwwww’ between shrieks of “ewww” and “yeesh.”
Every character in Sleepy Hollow seems to be full of personal demons and uncomfortable truths, including Ichabod Crane. Through high-contrast flashbacks into Ichabod’s terrifying childhood, and the always recognizable and beautiful sounds of Danny Elfman’s score, the whole film is modern gothic poetry like only Tim Burton could create. The romance between Ichabod and Katrina feels more like the 18th century version of the modern indie hipster couple than anything you would expect to find in such a heavy genre, weird eye wear and dabbling with occult symbolism included.
The Phantom of the Opera
In what began as a silent horror film adaptation starring Lon Chaney as a garish recluse living in the shadows of an Opera house, The Phantom of the Opera has now become one of the most stunning and romantic musicals of all time. As it may be difficult to get tickets to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Broadway hit, the 2004 film adaptation starring Gerard Butler as the mysterious Phantom and Emmy Rossum as the angelic opera soprano Christine Daae is available for your streaming pleasure. Although flawed, this film boasts some truly awe-inspiring musical numbers and a love triangle that will reduce you to tears.
The evil that resides in the soul of the Phantom is something so tragic in its origin that, like Dracula before him, you can almost rationalize it. These monsters were not born, they were made by the cruelty of man and fueled by the insanity of broken hearts. Feared by his own mother and cast aside as a sideshow freak, The Phantom took refuge in the bowels of the opera house, haunting and tormenting its owners for years but never daring to show his disfigured face. He begins coaching the young prodigy Christine as her angel of music; however, when her incredibly handsome childhood sweetheart Raoul (Patrick Wilson) comes back into the picture, the Phantom gets possessive and murderous. His life of solitude and rage never taught him the difference between roses and crashing a chandelier onto a stage risking the lives of hundreds of people.
Besides the conflicting and tearjerking love triangle, the ending of which always has me reaching for the tissue box, what makes The Phantom of the Opera a special entry on this list is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music. “Music of the Night” and “Point of No Return,” with their seductive themes of embracing the darkness and letting yourself go, are powerful ballads outlining the internal struggle ever present in the entire gothic romance genre.
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