Love stinks! Our favourite twisted romance films

You love her, but she loves him. And he loves somebody else, you just can’t win. But, for all its downsides, love has given us some incredible movies. At Pod Syndicate, we’re going all gooey over romance films with a dark heart – and here are our favourites in time for your Valentine’s Day viewing:

Shaun of the Dead (2004) – Noel, Beyond the Neon

On the face of it, Shaun of the Dead is the story of a man who wins back his girlfriend Liz by proving he’s not as useless as she thinks he is. But look a little deeper, and it’s about something much more interesting. Like many blokes, Shaun is struggling to let his carefree past go, to leave behind a life of smoking weed, playing video games, spending all night in the pub and dancing to hip hop – sorry, electro – until four in the fuckin’ morning.

Liz represents adulthood, responsibility, the path he should take, but his best friend Ed represents fun, freedom, the path he wants to stay on. Shaun loves Liz, but he loves Ed just as much (probably more) and choosing between them is the impossible situation of the first act. And, it’s only through the zombie chaos of the second act, that we reach a satisfyingly romantic resolution in the third… a world where Shaun can live happily ever after with them both forever.

Wild at Heart (1990) – Mike, Chin Stroker VS Punter

Murderous couples on the run. It’s definitely a thing. Badlands (1973), True Romance (1993), Natural Born Killers (1994): the list goes on. Often these films lean into 50s culture, with Elvis and James Dean obsessed guys and Marilyn and rock n roll referencing gals cutting a swath across the country; encountering weirdos, criminals and the alienation that the initially-appealing yellow brick road offers. Wild at Heart (1990) rarely gets mentioned in this pantheon which is a shame, as it is arguably the most interesting, (in some ways) influential and certainly the most romantic.

Sailor (Nicholas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern) are on the run from Lula’s deranged Mother (Dern’s real-life mom Diane Ladd) after she elopes with the self-confessed ‘man-slaughterer’. In his snakeskin jacket that represents his “belief in individuality and personal freedom”, his Presley-influenced vocal affectation and linguistic influence (“Rockin’ good news”) and her similarly out of time vernacular (“Hotter than Georgia asphalt”) they are legitimately equals in a relationship that is actually rather sweet. Unlike the other examples cited, this is not a relationship where the dominating man is leading the submissive naïve waif astray. They share stories of ex-lovers without judgement or jealousy and Sailor seeks Lula’s approval as much as vice versa. They listen to each other and work as one. There is only one moment of betrayal in the film and that comes in a moment of extreme pressure and is not enough to thwart their relationship.

Wild at Heart was made at the height of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks zeitgeist. It won the Palme D’or, in stark contrast to the booing, full-swing-backlash Lynch would receive just two years later with Twin: Peaks Fire Walk with Me (1991). But make no mistake; while Lynch was mainstream water-cooler fodder (he would never be as over-ground again) Wild at Heart is a bonkers film. Mixing explicit sex scenes, with insane mini-episodes afforded by the structure of Lula and Sailor sharing stories from their lives (take Crispin Glover’s Christmas-obsessed cousin ‘Jingle’ Dell for example) and sudden, shocking violence, he did not shy away from the excesses he was having to restrain with his network TV show, and its associated standards and practices rules. But having said that, there is a sweetness and romanticism that rises out of this dark retelling of the Wizard of Oz. Lula herself says that the world is “Wild at heart and weird on top”, and while they face some very low points near the end of the film, their love seems to remain unscathed. Much like Blue Velvet, which also has an unexpectedly happy ending, there are questions as to the reality of this. The mechanical robin at the end of Blue Velvet could be read as speaking to the artifice of this dream of happiness, and the moment where Cage usurps a heavy metal band’s performance to sing Love Me to an adoring Lula (and a weirdly accommodating audience of metalheads) pushes the limits of reality. The film ends with Cage singing Love Me Tender to Lula, a song he promised he would only sing to his wife, complete with backing music appearing out of the ether, it’s not unreasonable to question this reality. But when one considers that the reality of the entire film is questionable, one must accept that within this context, our characters are being given a happy ending. And in a world of ugliness, weirdness and violence, that is quite astonishing, and well, romantic.

The Shape of Water (2017) – Ian, Film Basterds

The Shape of Water is an exquisite film. Full of heart, darkness and wonderful imagery, combined with a captivating score which all allows it to stand as Del Toro’s American masterpiece.

It’s also a film about a woman fucking a fish-man.

It may sound reductive, but lets just discuss the fish-man in the room. The start of the film shows us Sally Hawkins enjoying some private time in a bath – ensuring we know this isn’t a film with nubbins for downstairs areas. No, this is a film where Hawkins and Doug Jones’ fish-man need some good old fashion fucking and hey, dude’s got a great chest.

It still blows my mind to this day that the film did as well as it did with Academy voters. Much is made of how conservative they are, but between the introspective, frankly quite stunning Moonlight (a film which got far better for me on rewatch) and a film where SALLY HAWKINS FUCKS A FISH-MAN, let them have their Green Book, we know how their bread is buttered really. And that’s with fish-man dick.

True Romance – Adam, The Hot Corn

They say opposites attract, and the creative union of True Romance, on paper, might have looked a tad shaky, yet the late, great Tony Scott’s visual bombast somehow aligns perfectly with Tarantino’s particular, idiosyncratic prose. Viewing True Romance now, what still resonates alongside the writer’s signature sadism – James Gandolfini nonchalantly sucker-punching Patricia Arquette is still as comfortable a viewing as ever – is the film’s dream-like, fairy-tale edge which is intensified by both Scott’s hazy aesthetic and the stylised, pop culture-inflected dialogue.

Crafting his script as a young and single movie-obsessed video shop employee, Tarantino’s somewhat naive and idealised interpretation of young love is what gives the film its beating heart among the gunfire and violence. That Alabama (Patricia Arquette), a gorgeous outgoing hooker with a Farrah Fawcett flick could fall so hard and fast for the insular Elvis-worshipping comic-book nerd Clarence (Christian Slater) represents the ultimate wish-fulfilment of its author, which translates into a dazzling, full-throttle flight of fancy on screen.

“You’re so cool!” becomes the ultimate romantic declaration in the least unlikely of places, but if Hugh Grant’s Charles can make his feelings known on a dreary day on the South Bank in Four Weddings, Alabama can scribble down her words of appreciation during a big-scale drug deal which is about to get very bloody indeed.

Romeo Is Bleeding (1993) – Marc, Film Basterds

If you want to wander down the desolate highways of twisted love then look no further than Peter Medak’s bizarre early 90’s neo-noir. A story of greed, perversion and a misunderstood sense of romance. 

Gary Oldman plays Jack Grimaldi a NYPD homicide detective and crooked cop who provides the mob with information on the whereabouts of informants and witnesses, all so he can feed ‘the hole’ – an access panel in his garden where he stores his ill-gotten gains. Jack justifies this by convincing himself it’s all the name of love. He’s just a hopeless, mildly misguided but somewhat noble romantic who wants to take his true love Natalie away from all the filth of New York. And, unlike most noir protagonists who are essentially good people the world thinks aren’t, Jack really is bad. In fact, he’s a lying scheming shit who actually thinks he’s one of the good guys. 

Jack’s world comes crashing down when the chaos of Lena Olin’s magnificently crazy Mona Demarkov enters his world. Mona is everything Jack wants, rich, powerful, beautiful she just also happens to be crazy on a whole other wonderful level, and she delights in toying with Jack to use him to get whatever she’s wants. Along the way she manages to ruin his career, his marriage and makes him kill his bit on the side. Jack collided with a force much stronger than he could ever be.

When Jack’s world falls apart he’s left pining for the life and love he ruined, broken by the realisation his demise and lonely existence is all his own making. Here we find him as the narrator of his own story, the Romeo laying his tale of woe, that leaves the audience saying ‘well, you got exactly what you deserved.’

Romeo is Bleeding is one of those underseen greats that unfortunately has never quite found its audience. It’s a film where it will either take you on it’s wild ride or leave you wondering why you should care about any of it at all. Gems like this don’t need to be universally liked, they’re not supposed to be. They take risks and go off in strange directions – most notably Lena Olin going full tilt as Mona Demarkov, the polar opposite of Jack who has only crazed psycho-sexual mania instead of romance – it’s really something to behold. If you dig those early 90’s noir films like The Last Seduction and Red Rock West, Romeo is Bleeding may well be right up your street.

To hear Marc, Ian and Noel discuss 1993’s Romeo is Bleeding in depth – as well as Dirty (2005) and American Made (2015) – go check out the latest episode of Play it Forward over on the Pod Syndicate Bonus Shows feed.