Last Night in Soho Review: Edgar Wrights Retro Horror Has Its Heart in the Sixties and Its Head All Over the Place – Variety

Have you ever noticed how the icily dramatic opening strings in Youre My World, Cilla Blacks earnest, bawling-on-the-bathroom-floor ballad from 1965, could just as easily be a shivery horror theme by Bernard Herrmann? Edgar Wright has, and uses the likeness to briefly spine-tingling effect early in Last Night in Soho: As 60s-fixated Gen-Z fashion student Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) finds herself somehow transported in time to the Swinging London world of naive party girl and aspiring chanteuse Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), those strings signal not just the dreamy collision of timelines, but a darkening of tone and genre, as Eloises rosy nostalgia for an era she never inhabited is soon invaded by blood-dripping violence and threat.

Its a great needle-drop, from a filmmaker who has made them a trademark of his work, and its the one moment in which Wrights murky, middling blend of horror and time-traveling fantasy briefly makes the heart quicken. Otherwise, Last Night in Soho is a surprising misfire, all the more disappointing for being made with such palpable care and conviction. Wrights particular affections for B-movies, British Invasion pop and a fast-fading pocket of urban London may be written all over the film, but they arent compellingly written into it, ultimately swamping the thin supernatural sleuth story at its heart.

Which is to say that Wright has lovingly made Last Night in Soho for himself and, well, its not clear who else. Juvenile characterizations and plotting lean into YA territory while a few grisly spurts of sex and gore suggest otherwise. Theres a feminist undertow to its study of young women manipulated and misled by toxic masculinity, but the female characters themselves are blandly imperilled cyphers. Earlier comic trappings give way to a more sustained, serious-minded exercise in spooking the audience, but horror-heads are unlikely to find it particularly scary. (Never mind, it wasnt very funny to begin with either.) At a certain point, even the period music cues prove uninspired, albeit a consistent pleasure to listen to.

What it does have is McKenzie, never one to let an underwritten character thwart her best efforts, and whose sweetly open, porous, persistently worry-etched features couldnt be more ideally suited to Eloises ingenuous, new-in-town outlook. Orphaned since the age of seven after her mother, beset with mental illness, took her own life and raised in the English countryside by her kindly, doting grandmother (Rita Tushingham), she has long nurtured dreams of becoming a fashion designer, and is finally headed to the London College of Fashion to make it happen.

Once there, Eloise swiftly sees the wisdom of her grandmothers warning about the alienating effects of the Big Smoke, finding herself bullied by the college mean girls who mock her homemade couture and retro tastes. (Naturally, granny has instilled in her a love for Dusty Springfield and Mary Quant.) Rather than become the dorm-room wallflower, she instead seeks a room of her own, chancing upon a decoratively frozen-in-time garret in Fitzrovia, owned by eccentric elderly landlady Mrs. Collins (the late Diana Rigg, a sly, secretive presence in her final screen role).

That a freshman student can afford a whole studio to herself in central London is perhaps the first clue that things are headed in a fantastical direction, though the second is even more disconcerting: Shortly after moving in, Eloise finds that the room operates as a kind of portal to the mid-1960s life of past resident Sandie, who wants to be the next Cilla Black, but whose oily svengali (Matt Smith) is determined to push her into less wholesome forms of nighttime entertainment.

Finding her body somehow twinned with Sandies when she goes to sleep, Eloise is at first exhilarated to go traipsing through the seamily glamorous vintage Soho of her daydreams, in the perfect physical person of Anya Taylor-Joy here, as in The Queens Gambit, proving herself ideally suited to whole-nine-yards 60s styling. (Odile Dicks-Mireauxs era-blending, sugar-spun costumes are a high point.) As Sandies story turns ever darker, however, Eloise senses shes a witness to something unspeakable, nearly 60 years after the fact.

Theres promise in this premise, though a problem with Wright and Krysty Wilson-Cairns script is how quickly it reaches this point of realization, and how repetitively it runs in place for the remainder of the films inordinate two-hour running time. Red herrings are trailed long after theyve become obviously irrelevant; a single variety of VFX-enhanced jump scare is recycled across multiple samey setpieces; a romance between Eloise and gentle, sensitive student John (Michael Ajao) stays stubbornly tentative.

One feels for Ajao, seemingly stuck with a character constructed as a #NotAllMen rejoinder to the abusive masculinity on display elsewhere, minus any personality of his own. Fascinatingly, Eloise appears to have selected a fashion college staffed and attended only by women and straight men. As for McKenzie and Taylor-Joy, both among the brightest spots in proceedings, neither sees their character develop beyond varying degrees of wide-eyed and terrorized.

You could counter that many of the Hammer Horror and giallo films woven into Last Night in Sohos vintage fabric (the 1972 Hammer effort Straight on Till Morning, also starring Tushingham, seems one of several specific reference points) didnt treat their female characters all that differently, though Wrights film also strives for a postmodern, politically updated perspective that it only intermittently hits.

Aesthetically, meanwhile, he and cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung go less overboard on the lurid genre pastiche than you might expect, just where you could forgive some iridescent, ketchup-splashed excess. Last Night in Soho tacitly mourns the present-day gentrification of the titular district, where anonymous office slabs and bougie chains are fast replacing the red-light delights of old, to safer but less characterful effect. Yet Wrights film feels itself part-gentrified, dressing up cheap genre thrills in a distanced, dignifying gauze of nostalgia, and all the less fun for it.

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Last Night in Soho Review: Edgar Wrights Retro Horror Has Its Heart in the Sixties and Its Head All Over the Place - Variety

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Reviewed and Recommended by Erik Baquero
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