AT THE MOVIES: 'Last Night in Soho' delivers memorable, if erratic, horror cinema
"Last Night in Soho" follows country girl Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie), who has dreams of being a fashion designer in London. However, she's constantly haunted by visions of her deceased mom and, more pressingly, has an obsession with the past, specifically, the 1960s. When she arrives at a prestigious fashion academy in London, Eloise finds herself so isolated by her classmates and dorm roommate that she ends up packing her things and settling in a small room elsewhere. Here, Eloise begins to have nighttime fantasies where she inhabits the body of Sandy (Anya Taylor-Joy), a young woman coming to London in the 1960s with dreams of being a music superstar.
Initially, it all feels like a dream come true, as Eloise gets whisked away in her slumber to a past that seems more welcoming than a present defined by trauma and social anxiety. But soon, it becomes clear things aren't all peachy-keen in the past. Eloise is going to have to confront the darkness lurking in her trips to the 1960s, especially once the past begins seeping into her daytime life.
Director Edgar Wright's gift for visuals has been apparent throughout his career. His comedies have lively editing, Baby Driver's chase scenes practically sprinted off the screen with such kinetic camerawork. No surprise, then, that Wright proves adept at making a horror movie that works so well at just being a hub for vibes. And not just eerie vibes too. As Eloise first makes her way into a nightclub from decades past, the director (who penned the script with Krysty Wilson-Cairns) wisely largely eschews dialogue and just lets the richly detailed flourishes of this backdrop wash over the viewer. We're as awestruck by everything as Eloise! Leaning on a sense of wonder with no glibness to undercut the atmosphere works not just for this scene, but in providing contrast for later eerie sequences.
The best spooky moments, meanwhile, tend to be the ones that lean heavily on the visual motifs of Giallo cinema and eschew realism (often simultaneously). Eloise's apartment is coated in red from a neon sign outside, which proves subtly unsettling, while a scene of Sandy making her way through a backstage area and confronting the dark underbelly of the entertainment world is lathered in a quietly disorienting green tint. In both cases, Wright uses bright colors to chillingly suggest how far Eloise and Sandy have strayed from typical reality. Such instances of hue-based frights are exquisitely handled by cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, the whole film looks great through his camerawork.
Meanwhile, shocking no one, the two lead actors of Last Night in Soho deliver strong work in their respective roles. That's no surprise given that Thomasin McKenzie and Anya Taylor-Joy have both been on unstoppable hot streaks since they each leaped onto the radar of moviegoers in the last five years. McKenzie injects distinctive flairs into her character's socially morose demeanor while Taylor-Joy is just really good at portraying people in period pieces. Something about her aura, she just immediately conveys that she's got moxie from another era entirely. That screen presence is fun to watch on its own, but it also works at making it immediately clear why McKenzie's Eloise would be so captivated by Sandy.
Last Night in Soho does a lot right, but there are undeniably flaws here and, overall, it's probably Edgar Wright's weakest directorial effort. One key shortcoming is the third act, which decides to have Eloise play Scooby-Doo in figuring out Sandy's past. A film that's gotten a lot of mileage out of ambiance and vibes proves less engaging once characters try to uncover the meaning behind those qualities. Meanwhile, the big finale, without getting into spoilers, is messy and ends up in that frustrating place of trying to do a whole lot but failing to accomplish all that much. Then there are the darker aspects informing Sandy's experiences breaking into showbiz, which is meant as a commentary on how men treat women as objects.
This part of the story has lofty ambitions at critiquing both blind nostalgia and normalized mistreatment of women. However, the handling of those ambitions could have used some fine-tuning since it comes off derivative of other films and ends up reducing background women to just their anguish in execution. Generic instances of fake-out jump scares and a strangely written supporting character named John (Michael Ajao) also prove to be noticeable shortcomings Last Night in Soho. It works better visually and in subtext, than it does with surface-level storytelling details, but Last Night in Soho is an Edgar Wright movie, so it's still a polished exercise worth seeing. Just don't expect any visits from the Vegan Police in this one...
A lifelong movie fan and writer, Douglas Laman graduated from UT Dallas and is currently a graduate student at the University of North Texas. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Texoma Marketing and Media Group.