“Last Night in Soho”
Directed by Edgar Wright
Rated R (Brief drug material; bloody violence; brief graphic nudity; language; sexual content)
I always look forward to new releases from filmmakers who love movies. Sure, there are lots of directors who like and appreciate movies, but I mean directors who are unfailingly passionate about their craft and who would be movie-obsessed even if they were not successful at making films themselves. Martin Scorsese comes to mind, as do Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson and Richard Linklater. And so does Edgar Wright, a writer/director who has made a career out of spoofing, satirizing and deconstructing his favorite genres and filmmakers.
Wright’s latest is “Last Night in Soho,” a time-traveling thriller with a decidedly bloody bent. Although primarily set in present-day, the fact is the film’s timeline is bifurcated with one leg in the present and the other in 1965 London. For those who love the culture, music and fashion of 1960s London, the production design of England’s capital city in its swinging Soho prime will leave you swooning and downloading “Thunderball” as fast as your fingers will allow. If modern London is more of your thing, there’s that, too.
Thomasin McKenzie plays Ellie Turner, a farm girl who’s moving to the big city to study at a prestigious fashion design program. Years before, Ellie’s mother committed suicide, and it seems that Ellie possesses a legitimate psychic gift that allows her mother to “visit” silently from time to time. Pathologically shy, Ellie moves into a rented room after her dorm-mates turn out to be the worst clique since “Mean Girls.” Little does she realize that she’s about to get a whole bunch of new roommates who are even nastier than the first set. Ellie’s rented room is on the top floor of an old Soho home owned by Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg, wonderful as always in her final performance), a fiercely protective landlord who looks after her tenants and her house.
Ellie is an unapologetic fan of all things vintage London, and this obsession leads to a very vivid dream in which she travels to 1965 and observes wannabe pop singer Sandi (Anya Taylor-Joy from “The Queen’s Gambit”) arriving at a Soho club hoping to secure an audition. What she secures instead is Jack, a handsome and shady manager/boyfriend who first impresses Sandi by smacking around a handsy businessman who assumes erroneously that Sandi is for rent.
From here, the two separate timelines begin to weave together and become less and less under Ellie’s control. Her dreams mutate into vivid visions in which she becomes more entwined with Sandi, and she has a harder and harder time separating herself from Sandi’s consciousness. It also appears that Sandi’s world has a murder (or more than one) at its core. As a result, Ellie begins to suffer a breakdown as she tries desperately to keep the very dangerous 1965 world at bay as it begins to creep into her 2021 reality. At this point, the film goes from being a Hitchcockian thriller to an out-and-out horror movie with plenty of bloodshed, surprise turnabouts and effective jump scares. All of this might sound a little complicated, but Wright’s clear-eyed storytelling skill keeps everything easily coherent, and it is never confused about where we are in time and through whose perspective the action is transpiring.
Also effective are the eerie special effects. At the end of the day, this is really a haunted house movie with Ellie’s rented room being ground zero for all kinds of nasty back-from-the-dead types. They provide a genuine creepiness that’s more dependent on mood, setting and lighting than shock. That’s not to say that there aren’t shocks. Yes, the ghost effects are genuinely startling, but when the film clicks into its bloody horror phase in the last third, the rails really do come off, and fans of gory horror will not be disappointed. The film should be praised for its balance of dread horror and knife-wielding horror, like a really memorable dark ride in a locally owned amusement park or state fair.
The performances are excellent overall with McKenzie and Joy providing an effective county mouse/city mouse dichotomy and Smith as Sandi’s genuinely off-putting type-A “manager.” However, the movie really belongs to Diana Rigg, who clearly knows her way around this kind of genre film and appears to be having a great time hamming it up while sharing the screen with two very capable yet much younger co-stars. As her final performance, it’s a worthy closure to an enviable career.
“Last Week in Soho” doesn’t aspire to be anything it isn’t. This is popcorn horror in which the British elegance of “The Innocents” and “Don’t Look Now” meets the Italian brutality of “Deep Red.” The film is a satisfyingly slow-building but ultimately intense experience guided by a terrific soundtrack and an authentically creepy vibe.
Jed Blaugrund is an English teacher at West Ranch High School, and a resident of Stevenson Ranch. Before becoming a teacher, he graduated from the USC School of Cinema/Television and worked for more than 20 years in the film business.