“Last Night in Soho” was one of the most acclaimed movies of 2021 by audiences and critics alike and finds Edgar Wright (“Baby Driver“, “Shaun of the Dead“, “Hot Fuzz“, “Scott Pilgrim vs The World“) at the height of his cinematic powers with this disturbing, mind-bending, coming of age psychological horror.
Having been a huge fan of Wright since his days as director of the BAFTA nominated “Spaced” (1999 – 2001), the British TV comedy series that made Geek cool, it is a bit of an understatement to say I was eagerly anticipating his first foray into horror proper since close to a decade ago dipping his toes into the genre with the iconic comedy horror “Shaun of the Dead“.
Now what made “Last Night in Soho” even more tantalising a proposition was the melding of many inspirations including Hitchcock, Bergman, and Polanski, classic 1960s movies such as “Blow Up” and “Darling“, and Italian Giallo films, in particular those of Mario Bava and Dario Argento. Further making for an even more exciting prospect was that Wright was for the first time forgoing the humour he is known for in favour of something far more grounded than anything he had attempted before.
For the most part this is his most mature and artistically pure work; moving away from his usual kinetic stylings, yet still with touches that marks out a Wright movie, but channelled into something far more serious.
Eloise (Tomasin McKenzie), an aspiring fashion designer, is mysteriously able to enter the 1960s where she encounters a dazzling wannabe singer, Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy). But the glamour is not all it appears to be and the dreams of the past start to crack and splinter into something far darker.
Setting the early tone perfectly by way of an exhilarating credit sequence and touching opening scenes with Eloise and her Grandmother (Rita Tushingham). Very economically Eloise’s psychology and back story are fleshed out just enough for us to care and feel the excitement and joy at her impending journey, both literal and psychological, to fulfil her mother’s and her own dreams. Arriving in London, along with Eloise we immediately feel things are not going to be as she envisaged. A taxi ride is unbearably uncomfortable, putting across what many women sadly have to face on a regular basis. Later building on this is a scene at the club where Sandie is a troupe dancer with all the men leering and jeering. Both are as disturbing as the full-on horror to follow, and encapsulate the film’s subtext.
Eloise’s story reflects Wright’s own realisation that led to the genesis of “Last Night in Soho” over 10 years ago. He was given the book “Hammer Glamour: Classic Images From the Archive of Hammer Films” that showcased the studio’s female stars including Ingrid Pitt, Raquel Welch, Barbara Shelley, Madeleine Smith, and others. Alongside the photos are biographies of each. Speaking to IndieWire‘s Eric Kohn he said “I was really struck by the fact that a quarter of the bios ended in tragedy and careers cut short. It was completely dissonant from this glossy kind of coffee table book.” He went onto to say “The bleak truth of it is that those stories were out there but they hadn’t been heard first-hand. At worst they were malicious gossip in the way that a lot of stories about showbiz aren’t the victims themselves telling their side of the story. I think the sadder thing is obviously some of those stories from the 60s will never be heard because some of those people are no longer with us. The sad truth is that the [LAST NIGHT IN SOHO] story is myriad. Back then, there was this feeling that this was how it worked, especially on the lowest rungs of the showbiz ladder.” Because of this Wright said “There were a lot of subjects in the film that I didn’t want to enter into lightly.” So he brought in Lucy Pardee, a researcher and casting director, to compile stories from women who lived and worked in Soho during the 1960s. His co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns worked as a barmaid at the Toucan Pub, which features in LAST NIGHT IN SOHO, and like Eloise, she lived adjacent to a strip club and constantly witnessed the misogyny. These experiences coalesced with the many others that Pardee had gathered together, as well as stories Wright’s own mother shared about lecherous men from the era. “I had this enormous ton of research that was completely harrowing, disturbing, and revealing – all your worst fears confirmed.” He found this helpful in grounding and validating the story, and also made him less fearful of the project, but the premise never made him at ease, saying “For a horror film, there has to be something about it that’s disturbing to you. If it doesn’t hit close to home then you probably aren’t doing it right.”
Wright further explained in an NPR interview, “It’s tempting to just kind of think of it [the ’60s] as being the most exciting time. But sort of what the movie is about is that you can’t have the good without the bad.”
Most notably “the good,” alongside the story founded within a core of realism, is in the form of the expected Wright style references and homages. One of the standouts is a touching tribute to late English TV star Cilla Black that is used to great effect within the narrative, as are two of her iconic songs. She began her career as a singer in the 1960s and most probably sang in similar clubs as the character Sandie does, and sadly may well have had similar experiences.
More times than not these homages and references are terrifically nuanced, although occasionally maybe less so. But really what is not to love about feeling Eloise’s childlike wonder at her first glimpse of 1960s London with the utterly glorious reveal of the Thunderball cinema marquee and posters such as “Dr Terror’s House of Horrors“. This point is where it is obvious “Last Night in Soho” was created by a cinema lover for cinema lovers, which fans will be well aware all of Wright’s movies are. Yet as much as some are a mite heavy handed, numerous are beautifully sublime. I know I missed many of them, a characteristic that makes multiple re-watches essential. However, each and every one is in complete service of the narrative, character, and world building, never for a moment detracting from but enhancing the whole. Used to wonderful effect to empathetically draw the viewer into Eloise’s perceived “magical” 1960s London that gradually becomes a living nightmare; with her first trips into the world as breath-taking as much as the last act is horrifying.
Yes at times Wright is over-indulgent and arguably “Last Night in Soho” would possibly have benefited trimming, but this would have led to excising some truly awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping sequences that lend to Eloise’s starry eyed viewed of the world she has been catapulted into. Most impressively some of these shots were seemingly created with what to all intents and purposes appears to be CGI trickery when in fact each and every one was wherever possible realised practically.
Nonetheless what ultimately drives and elevates “Last Night in Soho” is the perfect casting combined with the exceptionally realised screenplay by Wright and Wilson-Cairns that melds every element to wonderful effect.
It was an absolute thrill to see iconic stars of the era Rita Tushingham, Terrence Stamp, and especially Diana Rigg in her last performance, maybe among one of her finest, alongside some of the best young actors of their generation, the phenomenal McKenzie, Taylor-Joy, and Matt Smith.
Marking out “Last Night in Soho” as potentially something special is each of them tend to gravitate towards interesting projects, as their veterans of British cinema co-stars pretty much have done throughout their long and varied careers. The three stars could well see themselves become similarly iconic and as revered over the coming years and decades if they continue along this path.
Music plays a massive part and it would be neglectful to not give special mention to the magnificent combination of original score by Steven Price and 60s pop music soundtrack that intensifies every feeling and emotion. All the songs used will never sound again quite the same, particularly Sandie Shaw‘s ‘Puppet on a String‘ and Petula Clark‘s ‘Downtown‘. The latter was re-recorded by Taylor-Joy specifically for among one of the most unsettling scenes, bringing to mind the very best utilisation by Scorsese.
“Last Night in Soho” really is a nostalgia ride like no other, masterly taking the audience from the absolute highs of a vivid, fantastical fairy tale 1960s to the depths of a hell on earth. Which is perhaps why the epilogue feels a little out of step with and faintly tonally different to what proceeds in the last third. As the events progress it does hit predictable beats and some threads are slightly lacking, with characters not as fleshed out as they could have been, particularly that of Stamp, as Silver Haired Gentleman, who would have benefited more filling in of his backstory.
Nevertheless, these are minor quibbles when Wright has delivered a dazzling, fantastical nightmare that focusses on real world, and still contemporary, themes while paying heartfelt homage to his favourite movies and film-makers. Along the way fashioning multiple genres into a genuinely original piece of substantial, artistic, popcorn cinema that has something to say about how women are negatively viewed as merely objects and despicably treated by some men.
“Last Night in Soho” cannot be recommended highly enough for Wright fans, cinema lovers, as a taster of Italian genre and British 60s cinema, and those that want something different with depth from a horror movie and mainstream cinema.
Without a doubt among one of the best and most original mainstream films of recent years.
Available now on Blu-Ray, DVD, & VOD.