BFI London Film Festival presents Last Night in Soho; in cinemas nationwide from October 29th
Edgar Wright has dabbled in horror for a long time. For example, Shaun of the Dead is a valentine to the zombie genre, while Hot Fuzz is a part-slasher part-Wicker Man journey. However, Wright has never fully embraced the genre due to a postmodern, self-aware style that has prevented any genuine scares or shocks. Therefore when Wright announced his first post-Baby Driver project to be a horror, many of us became feverishly excited for what delightful frights Wright had in store. His hints of a Don’t Look Now tone and style deliciously mixed with the vibrant swinging sixties creating a possible modern/period horror that paid homage to its elders. But while Last Night in Soho indeed drips style in abundance, it is perhaps a little too abundant.
Thomasin McKenzie plays a country bumpkin named Eloise, a Cornish girl with an undisclosed sixth sense who is obsessed with all things 1960s, especially fashion. Eloise’s quiet reserve and slightly awkward demeanour are skilfully reflected in McKenzie’s portrayal, like a country mouse overcome by the sheer magnitude of the capital. But, while the city may be overwhelming, the people are less so. Here Synnøve Karlsen’s infinitely-grating Jocasta is a hilariously relatable ‘it’ girl with a fatal diagnosis of central character syndrome. Meanwhile, we have newcomer Michael Ajao’s, John, the romantic foil to Jocasta. However, both seem deliberately employed to move the narrative along, counter-acting each other to push Eloise further. Here it appears that everyone introduced in Wright’s first act is a narrative chess piece that he can manipulate to get us to where we need to go.
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As we enter London’s swinging sixties in all its glory, we quickly find Wright’s playground of choice. Here neon lights and nightclub stages are draped in a Giallo-Esque glow; the melodically enchanting ‘60s soundtrack, filling us with a deep sense of nostalgia, with Wright deliberately playing on both Eloise’s and the audiences love of a swinging decade. And when Anya Taylor-Joy appears, it is a revelation – everything about her screams ‘60s movie starlet, perfectly encapsulating her character Sandie without uttering a word. Her presence grips you like a velvet vice that has us bewitched by her every move and sentence.
Something about Taylor-Joy has encapsulated the world, and Wright seems to amplify this in Soho, understanding the theatrical weapon she is. It’s surprising to believe she was once interested in the role of Eloise. After all, both McKenzie and Taylor-Joy seem so perfect in their respective roles that imagining Taylor-Joy as Eloise is impossible.
Chung Chung-hoon’s cinematography captures the psychological melding of Eloise and Sandie through a mirrored doubling, a psychological Duck Soup gag. Here Chung-hoon gradually warps his funhouse trick into a transparent cage, locking Eloise and Sandie away from one another. This is where Wright’s kinetic style picks up once more, if only fleetingly. Taylor Joy’s dance with the nefarious Jack (Matt Smith) throwing Eloise in and taking her out with every sway in a visually exciting tour de force. However, when Eloise’s psychological grip begins to weaken, Chung-hoon leans in as colours scream and bleed down the screen, shots kaleidoscoping into a hundred iterations of themselves. Meanwhile, as Sandie starts to lose her grip on reality, the visual feast steps up a gear, with scenes blurring into one another, fighting each other for their moment.
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Last Night in Soho is a deliberate attempt from Wright to break out of the mould, as he sheds his hyper-kinetic style, as well as placing a woman as his lead for the first-ever time. It’s always refreshing to see a director attempt to break new ground, however in doing so, Wright loses his punchy dynamism and adopts a simplistic script. Here, Eloise, is the subject of the classic ‘is this happening to her or is it just mental illness?’, a slightly tired trademark of modern horror. Meanwhile, many aspects of Eloise lack a dedicated voice, such as her sixth sense – how can she see her mother, why is she even there?
Ultimately Wright’s penchant for a hedonistic and whimsical sixties style leaves him unable to justify the endgame of Last Night in Soho. Here many of the narrative beats are clear from a mile away, whilst others leave you scratching your head as to their point beyond a quick ‘oh, wow!’ Much of the true horror held within Last Night in Soho comes from a direction that feels at times uncomfortable and not Wright’s place to tread. Those who are aware of Soho’s history will understand what I am alluding to. It’s pretty unusual for a director with a deep understanding of genre conventions and stereotypes to fall into those same cliches and tropes.
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Unfortunately, Last Night in Soho is not the Soho spooktacular that I had been hoping for. Instead, it feels like a love letter to the sixties from a director who rushed into an idea before it was ready. For me, this makes Last Night in Soho Wright’s weakest feature, but it’s by no means a bad film. In a way, it’s a perfect metaphor for a night out in Soho – your evening starting with an exciting sense of anticipation. But following one too many overpriced cocktails, the night is over before it’s begun.