It’s a real treat to see director Edgar Wright continually find ways to challenge himself by making films stemming from his genuine passions and interests for older features. Last Night in Soho finds the director once again relying on his kinetic visual style to bring a fresh look at horror this time around. Inspired by a variety of British fright films from the 60s and 70s, the movie has plenty of tricks up its sleeves and hip tracks from the swingin’ sixties to fuel a long night at the drive-in or a club. At the same time, it’s an eccentric and richly atmospheric psychological thriller, with a strong lead performance from a wide-eyed Thomasin McKenzie and killer supporting work from Anya Taylor-Joy.
Beginning in modern times, Eloise Turner (McKenzie) is an aspiring designer who has traveled to London for fashion school. After acquiring a room for rent, Eloise finds herself transported back to 1966 London, when she sleeps at night. During these episodes, Eloise is in the body of an aspiring nightclub singer named Sandie (Taylor-Joy). At first, Eloise finds herself in love with the glamorous period that she already idealized. However, Sandie’s relationship with a man named Jack (Matt Smith) begins showing the danger lurking underneath. Soon enough, Eloise begins having troubles separating the past from her present, with the lives of her and Sandie seemingly in jeopardy.
With a story developed by Wright and the screenplay by him and Krysty Wilson-Cairns, being his first narrative focused on a female protagonist, it’s interesting to see how the film utilizes this perspective. With the dual timeline serving as a significant part of the film, there are characters in both eras showing how the times compare and contrast when dealing with the way women are treated. Eloise notably finds herself having a difficult time in the present, as the other female students around her poke fun at her style and countryside origins. The men in the 60s, on the other hand, are as characteristically awful as one would think for drunken punters hanging out in clubs and trying to take advantage of women like Sandie.
The contrast is deliberate but also heavily stylized. Established early on are Eloise’s extra senses, as she tends to envision her deceased mother (who died by suicide). Is this informing her visions of the past? Are there ghosts? Is something more nefarious afoot? These are all questions the narrative presents and elaborates on over time without ever losing focus. It’s also a way to further inform the reasoning behind relying on a character like Eloise to see this story unfold. While not openly addressing mental illness, among the thematic choices in play, a balance between toxic individuals and the challenges of independence is clearly on display.
Of course, the other clear theme is the embrace of nostalgia. Last Night in Soho is swimming with love for a previous era. There are several ways to read this, as the film finds ways to reward and punish our heroine for daring to model her ideas around past icons. A variety of choices aid in this, even before the film presents its astounding recreation of 60s London (DP Chung-hoon Chung delivers spectacular work, along with the production design team). Additionally, Eloise’s love for 60s music and her visions of the past allows for clear choices in her clothing designs, impressing her instructors in the process.
When the film does enter the 60s, it’s wall-to-wall colors, clothes, and cars. With an emphasis on mirrors, Wright is happy to use a variety of camera tricks to have Eloise and Sandie witness these settings (with one often serving as the reflection for the other). Moreover, while Wright has listed Don’t Look Back and Repulsion as clear influences, it’s easy to see brushes of Italian horror creeping into the film as well. This all further blends the realms of uncertainty for poor Eloise, whose loss of focus not only affects her but those who find themselves drawn to her.
Fittingly, Wright has assembled a solid supporting cast made up of performers who clearly understand the mood of the feature. Smith (and his Cockney accent) finds the right energy necessary to move between charming and sinister. As a nice young lad who admires Eloise, Michael Ajao brings a sweetness that practically feels like the top of a mountain Eloise continually has difficulty reaching as a means to reciprocate. On the veteran side of things, Terence Stamp’s mysterious silver-haired gentleman is loads of fun to watch as he slithers in and out of the story. And then there’s the late Diana Rigg in her final film performance, serving a proper purpose in this story, and gets plenty of fun moments throughout.
The casting also provides the film many bits of Wright’s cleverness, given the filmographies of the actors. Elsewhere, between visual references, lines of dialogue, and location designs, this is another Wright film that not only delivers on its initial viewing but is packed with reasons to revisit for the sake of further discovery. As a film geek himself, Wright has proven again and again how adept he can be at evoking films and filmmakers, whether in a comedy or something more serious, without devolving into broad parody. At the same time, the severity of what takes place in his horror film shows signs of progression.
Whether or not one finds the film scary (there are some jump scares that do the trick), this is another area where Wright finds ways to evoke past features and add some exciting approaches to what’s on display. Without going too far into the actual threat, Eloise begins to envision elements that go far beyond figures from the past. The way these areas are visually realized makes for creative displays of the grotesque. Adding onto that, Last Night in Soho doesn’t shy away from taking Eloise’s visions to kaleidoscopic extremes to not only provide a colorful and horrific trip for the viewer but to serve as a fitting depiction of her psychological state as well.
His Cornetto trilogy (and his sitcom Spaced) capitalized on protagonists who needed to embrace adulthood and new forms of responsibility. Scott Pilgrim and Baby Driver deal with the concept of morality vs. self-importance, as well as learning to understand one’s own identity. Last Night In Soho explores some of these themes as well. It also feels very of the moment in terms of reckoning with trauma and forms of empowerment. Whether or not it is Wright’s most mature film, he at least has the strength of his two female leads to best convey the levels of emotion taking place, even as the film grows more abstract in its use of horror elements.
Really, like most horror, the balance of character drama, a building sense of dread, and the manifestation of terror allow for the subtext to come through as clearly as it needs to. Setting all of this against a terrifically realized backdrop (past and present) makes for an energized and refreshing feature benefited even more by Wright’s ear for great music. Yes, Last Night in Soho has a soundtrack I’ll likely listen to on repeat for a while. Fortunately, the film is well worth watching and replaying as well. Spooky and very groovy, indeed.