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Tuesday, October 19, 2021

‘Last Night in Soho’ Review: Edgar Wright’s Retro Horror Has Its Heart in the Sixties and Its Head All Over the Place

Have you ever noticed how the icily dramatic opening strings in “You’re My World,” Cilla Black’s 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 Eloise’s rosy nostalgia for an era she never inhabited is soon invaded by blood-dripping violence and threat.

It’s a great needle-drop, from a filmmaker who has made them a trademark of his work, and it’s the one moment in which Wright’s 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. Wright’s 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 aren’t 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, it’s not clear who else. Juvenile characterizations and plotting lean into YA territory while a few grisly spurts of sex and gore suggest otherwise. There’s 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 wasn’t 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 couldn’t be more ideally suited to Eloise’s 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 grandmother’s 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 Sandie’s 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 Queen’s Gambit,” proving herself ideally suited to whole-nine-yards ’60s styling. (Odile Dicks-Mireaux’s era-blending, sugar-spun costumes are a high point.) As Sandie’s story turns ever darker, however, Eloise senses she’s a witness to something unspeakable, nearly 60 years after the fact.

There’s 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 film’s inordinate two-hour running time. Red herrings are trailed long after they’ve 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 Soho’s” vintage fabric (the 1972 Hammer effort “Straight on Till Morning,” also starring Tushingham, seems one of several specific reference points) didn’t treat their female characters all that differently, though Wright’s 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 Wright’s 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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