Last Night in Soho is the horror equivalent of an up-tempo cover song: it’s a fun romp with some impressive bells and whistles, even if it can’t capture the magic of the classics to which it owes its whole existence. Director/co-writer Edgar Wright, otherwise known for his comedic work with Nick Frost and Simon Pegg, crafts a psychological thriller about moving to London from a small English town; when it comes to that specific dynamic, he’s quite adept at creating a feeling of being overwhelmed. On the other hand, the story’s supernatural and mystery elements burst to life only on a few occasions — that too, when they’re overtly calling attention to their influences — but the film also moves smoothly and rhythmically enough to be enjoyable for the most part.
While it doesn’t have the same gimmick or even genre as Baby Driver— Wright’s most recent effort, itself an homage to Walter Hill’s crime thriller The Driver (1978) — it feels cut from the same musical cloth, opening with a stage-like silhouette of teenager Eloise Turner (Thomasin McKenzie) dancing while clad in a self-designed dress made from newspapers, before the lights come up to reveal a quaint countryside bedroom littered with mannequins. Eloise has just been accepted to study fashion in London, and despite her grandmother’s warnings about the city’s seedy characters — its leering men in particular — she’s excited to go. She also has a sixth sense, which she and her grandmother discuss with surprising frankness. This allows her to catch glimpses of her late mother in her bedroom mirror, and while this part of her backstory never amounts to much (beyond Eloise’s partial reason for studying fashion, since it was her mother’s dream as well), the matter-of-fact nature of her ability sets up a tale in which more inviting (and eventually, more macabre) visions take center stage.
However, the film’s strongest elements have little to do with the paranormal. When Eloise arrives at her university dorms, she immediately stands out as a country mouse in a sea of fancy city folk, especially her roommate, Jacosta, a two-faced mean-girl type draped in designer outfits, who actress Synnøve Karlsen layers into a fascinating and fully fledged character using little more than fleeting glances that betray deep insecurities. While Jacosta has fewer scenes with Eloise as the film goes on (she’s practically absent in the second half), she helps paint a more complete picture of the crushing weight felt by the incoming students. Where Jacosta responds to the pressure by fashioning a hardened personality, Eloise nearly breaks, and in an act of self-preservation, moves to a small, unassuming apartment leased out to her by a stern landlady who radiates an uncanny warmth, Miss Collins (Diana Rigg).
The apartment’s old-fashioned décor gels perfectly with Eloise’s love for clothing and music of the past (not unlike Wright’s own retro cinematic sensibilities, which are on full display beginning with a classic rock soundtrack). She loves the place, even if the flashing lights from a nearby French bakery fill the room with alternating washes of red and blue, an excuse to create occasional visual resemblance to Italian horror films about young women in new academic settings — like Suspiria (1977) and Phenomena (1985) by Dario Argento — even though this aesthetic is rarely used to any real dramatic or environmental effect. Eloise falls even deeper in love with the apartment on her first night there, when she’s whisked away into a dream of Soho in the mid 1960s. Night after night, she closes her eyes and enters the story of Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy of Queen’s Gambit), a young singer who once lived in the same room and whose wide-eyed artistic dreams match her own, and Jack (Matt Smith of Doctor Who), a suave nightclub manager whose interest in Sandie seems to straddle a fine line between business and romance.
Wright puts on a dazzling visual display when he brings Eloise, and us, into this world. Eloise alternatingly sees things through Sandie’s eyes, and from behind mirrors in which she stands in for Sandie’s reflection, as if she’s both a participant and observer in a lushly designed period film with eye-popping sets and costumes. By day, memories of Sandie begin to influence Eloise’s work while by night, Eloise dances her way through Sandie’s experiences, as a combination of seamless digital tricks and bold choreography results in fascinating long-take sequences, where Smith switches between swinging around ballrooms with Mackenzie and Taylor-Joy, as if the two actresses were occupying the same space. However, this dreamy frolic soon gives way to something darker, both as Sandie’s story takes winding turns, and as Eloise crosses paths with a strange old man (Terence Stamp) who might have a connection to these events.
Before long, Eloise’s visions begin to reflect her fears (and her grandmother’s fears) of encroaching male impositions. As a young girl in a crowded new city, she has to put up with more harassment than she’s used to, and as Sandie’s parallel story becomes a charged version of her own, it results in waking nightmares of faceless men, whose twisted appearance pays homage to Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) — another psychological thriller from which Last Night in Soho borrows several cues, though not as thoughtfully — and who embody Eloise’s fears of assault and unwanted sexual attention.
Given Eloise’s sheltered nature and her new university environment, her fears lie adjacent to a more general anxiety surrounding sex, partying, and adult life. These, in turn, end up contrasted by the presence of a boyish suitor, her sweet and helpful classmate John (Michael Ajao), who seems almost dimension-less in his one-tracked simplicity, though not without narrative reason. It works when the film wants to provide Eloise with a reprieve, and an opportunity to return to the carefree innocence of her pre-college days, but John also feels incredibly malformed when Wright attempts to use his Blackness as a slapdash parallel to Eloise’s feelings of outsidership (this extends to little more than stray jokes about London’s demographics).
When Eloise is pulled further into Sandie’s harrowing mystery, Wright’s influences become more overt, between visual nods to various Hitchcock films, and several attempts — both occasional and unsuccessful — at the kind of unsettling voyeurism Michael Powell cemented in the collective horror consciousness with the slasher movie Peeping Tom (1960). At its most charged, it creates moments that feel ripped right out of classic giallos, as the camera closes in and fixates on actresses’ eyes (both directly and in reflections) and Wright skillfully crafts a few operatic moments in the vein of gory schlock-horror, but these are often fleeting, and they feel disjointed since they clash with the film’s otherwise polished approach.
The Sandie-centric mystery presses against the walls of Eloise’s sanity, allowing Mackenzie to let loose with the kind of fearless, woman-gone-mad horror performance that was more common in decades past (and often, in cheaper productions). But that mystery also proves to be the film’s undoing when it matters most; it’s generally unengaging and not all that hard to figure out, so when its twists and turns ought to be shocking, they elicit only shrugs.
However, despite the eventual third act failings — including moments when Wright’s thematic approach to misogyny begins to feel flimsy — Last Night in Soho has more than enough momentum and visual flair to ensure that even its most familiar moments are never boring.
Now, if only Wright would make an actual musical…
The Bottom Line:
Overall, Last Night in Soho’s biggest strengths and weaknesses come from the same place: its attempts to replicate much better psychological horror from decades past. However, despite everything that doesn’t work, its scenery and musical energy keeps it fun. Not everything has to be wholly original in cinema to be good, and this is a great example of this. It’s well worth a watch, especially if you’re a fan of any of the other filmmakers mentioned in this article. 8.5/10