Let’s be honest; fairy tales are boring. “Living happily ever after,” is a concept rarely put into play, and if there is that rare instance that two people live out their years together in complete bliss, these are not the couples we want to be spending quality movie time watching. Not only are the best romances about overcoming insurmountable odds, but if the stars actually do align and the people destined to be together, get together, chances are they’re going to drive each other crazy somewhere down the line.
So for this Valentine’s Day, while your “happily ever aftered” friends are spending wads of cash on a babysitter, stuck in gridlocked traffic, choking down overpriced pre fixed menu courses and drunkenly attempting to consummate that greeting card fabricated holiday, you can be comfortably sequestered on the couch with your cats and a bag of Doritos, watching these sometimes dark, but always fascinating “alternate” takes on the ancient and creaky romantic archetypes.
The War of the Roses (1989)
You may not know that the title is taken from a series of dynasty wars for the throne of 15th Century England, so smart and acerbic was this darker than dark Danny DeVito directed film about a couple that goes from love to pure hatred over the course of a marriage. The object of their affection becomes the house that they both fight to keep and live in, even though they are divorcing. Soon, the entire estate becomes a real battleground, and until death do they finally part. Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas turn in performances that are funny and believable. When Turner declares war by telling her completely oblivious husband, “Sometimes I just wanna punch your face,” you can literally hear the audiences skin crawl.
Gun Crazy (1950)
Is it love, obsession, or displaced perversion? Either way, the now critically acclaimed low budget noir broke all kinds of ground, both technically and thematically, as it follows restless Bart (John Dall) and his unusual fascination with guns. He focuses on carny side show sharp shooter Annie Laurie Starr (played by a poison spitting Peggy Cummins) and after the two enact a kind of foreplay while shooting targets, a flame hotter than hell burns bright and dangerous. Like a couple in need of a powerful fix, they soon discover they need action (Annie more than Bart) as they devolve from robbing grocery stores to banks. Blacklisted Dalton Trumbo’s script crackles with passion and power, all the way to its “crime doesn’t pay” conclusion. It’s dark and dismal, but you’ll enjoy this rollercoaster ride all the way to hell.
Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
What could be more depressing than a man on a mission to drink himself to death, and the woman who helps him do it? Nicholas Cage is the suicidal ex-Hollywood screenwriter whose alcoholism has cost him his family and job. He declares his mission and drives to Las Vegas, where he forms an unusual alliance with Elisabeth Shue’s streetwalker. At first, they agree to not ask the other to stop their behavior, but soon they fall in love, and renege on their agreement. Things kick into self-loathing hell when Shue is raped and thrown out of her apartment, and Cage keeps drinking until he dies. The film was based on a semi-authobiographical novel by John O’Brien (yikes) who committed suicide 2 weeks after principal photography. Ain’t love grand?
We all know the story of the English Professor who develops an unhealthy obsession with the 12 year old daughter of his landlady. What makes Nabokov’s novel and the subsequent Kubrick film so compelling are its finely drawn characters; including Humbert Humbert, played by James Mason as the lascivious sociopath, and Peter Sellers as Clare Quilty, the enigmatic TV writer who may or may not have greater designs on the girl. Both film adaptations (Adrian Lyne directed a latter version starring Jeremy Irons) pale in comparison to the novel, but Kubrick’s version still packs enough censor board baiting for it to become incredibly watchable. Mason, a one time screen idol, does his very best to dispel all preconceived notions of his charms and turns out a performance of a man eaten inside out for his immoral love. As wrong as he is, we can’t help but hope he succeeds, and that’s the skill and ultimate success of this toxic love story.
The Skin I Live In (2011)
A modern retelling of Frankenstein, Pedro Almodovar’s “horror story without screams” is an exercise in boundary pushing with his story of a great Surgeon (Antonio Banderas) who performs indeterminate experiments on a young woman (Elena Anaya). Constantly altering her appearance to suit his fetishistic needs, she’s a prisoner at his estate. We never know why she’s amenable to his torture, and soon it is apparent she is in love with him, and he with her, as she becomes more like the “perfect woman” he is striving to create. As with any Almodovar film, there’s a lot more going on here than is initially thought, and its only at its final revelation is the full perversion and toxicity of this doomed love made painfully apparent. Ewww! Happy Valentines Day!