Known more for comedy, Edgar Wright has certainly dabbled into horror with what was arguably one of the best zombie movies of the 2000’s, Shaun of the Dead. His fast and intentionally choppy editing style has been used to great perfection when it comes to getting laughs. And in his latest film Last Night in Soho, he proves to be just as effective at eliciting suspense and terror!
Stranger in a Strange Land
Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie) is a young fashion student who travels from her home in rural England to the big city. Attending the London College of Fashion, she’s clearly a fish out of water. Her style is much more vintage. She loves all things 1960’s, especially fashion and music, so she doesn’t quite fit in.
Dealing with the typical uppity mean girls in her dorm, she decides to move into her own place. Responding to an advert, she rents out the top floor of an old house in Soho. Her landlord, Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg in her final film role before her death in 2020) is strict but very fair and seems to take a grandmotherly role to Ellie.
Each night as she goes to sleep, has has elaborate dreams/visions of Soho in the 1960’s, where she seems to see things from the perspective of a young aspiring singer at the time, Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy). She watches as Sandie takes on Jack (Matt Smith) as her manager, and what begins as her dreams coming true turns into something toxic and despicable.
Ellie watches helplessly as Sandie gets taken advantage of by Jack, and pimped out in exchange for her having a singing career at the nightclub in Soho. Just walking around the same areas where these things happened gives Ellie glimpses into the horrors that occurred decades earlier. And she begins to connect the dots and finds that certain people involved are still alive and thriving today…
Creating a Terrifying World
In addition to a pair of amazing performances by both Thomasin McKenzie and Anya Taylor-Joy, Edgar Wright succeeds at creating a world that’s both suspenseful and terrifying. It boasts some amazing production design in the way that recreates 1960’s London.
Much like Ellie, we’re pulled into a world that seems amazing at first, but slowly gets more terrifying as things goes. Wright had previously used his shooting/editing style to deliver laughs in the form of unexpected punchlines and subversions. And he very much does the same thing here, only instead of delivering a punchline to make the audience laugh, it’s a genuinely scary moment that makes the audience jump.
Jump scares remain the cheap currency of the horror genre, but they’re used incredibly effectively here. We watch Ellie slowly lose her grip on reality itself and she goes further down a rabbit hole. And as this happens, the film itself gets more surreal and trippy, as if we the audience are also descending into madness with her.
Glamorizing the Past
At its core, Last Night in Soho addresses society’s obsession with nostalgia, and why that’s not necessarily a good thing. It’s easy to look back and think about how “things used to be better” in some previous time period. A lot of times for people’s own perceptions, the past seemed better not because of the time period itself, but because they were younger and more carefree then.
The same is true here as Ellie yearns to live in London in the 1960’s because of the fashion and the music. But as she gazes into Sandie’s tragic story, she finds a time period that was filled with misogyny that ranges from women being told not to speak for themselves, all the way to the normalization of Sandie being sexually exploited by Jack and his business associates.
Behind the glitz and glamor of Sandie’s performances is a hard life of women being addicted to drugs just to have the energy to perform, and being abused sexually by men who make money off of them and treat them like property. While never directly addressing the MeToo movement, the movie definitely exists with those ideas in the back of its mind.
(Warning: Spoilers Ahead)
Who’s the Real Monster?
The movie goes in hard on its cautionary tale against glamorizing the past idea up until the third act, in which things take a drastic turn that almost unravels everything it’s been building. For the duration of the movie, Ellie believes that the creepy old man played by Terence Stamp is in fact the same Jack who was abusing Sandie decades earlier. She also sees a vision of a stabbing in the room she rents, and believes that Sandie was murdered there.
However, she comes to discover that the old man was actually a former undercover cop who just crossed paths with Sandie. Not only was Sandie not murdered, she was the one who killed Jack, and every other man that he pimped her out to. And she just so happens to still be alive today, and is in fact Ellie’s landlord the elderly and quiet Ms. Collins.
Up until this point, Diana Rigg was nothing more than a maternal figure to Ellie, but when she goes to police, the now elderly Sandie attempts to kill Ellie in an attempt to prevent the police from discovering that her house is filled with bodies of all the men she killed.
The third act villain twist is certainly played out in cinema, and part of what makes this one work is the fact that it’s Diana Rigg in the role. In her final film role, she gives a fitting finale performance to a career that spanned over 60 years.
For those familiar with Game of Thrones, Rigg once again demonstrates how well she can go from motherly and kind to brutal and calculating at the drop of a hat. However, her streak as the villain only lasts for a few minutes, until the house accidentally catches fire and Ellie manages to escape, while Ms. Collins allows it and accepts her fate.
The slight issue with this revelation is that the entire movie Ellie has been haunted by the “ghost” of Sandie, as well as the many men who took advantage of her. Up until the big reveal, Sandie is framed as a victim, and while that still holds true, it muddies the water a bit when she’s revealed to be something of a serial killer, particularly in the Aileen Wuornos fashion.
To be fair, there is a moment when the spirits of the men seem to beg Ellie for help, and she’s not interested in doing anything for them, she’s merely trying to survive herself. Ultimately the final reveal is meant to come off as almost empowering, and it does to a degree. It just doesn’t quite stick the landing that it had spent nearly two hours building towards.
All that considered, Last Night in Soho remains a brilliantly acted and directed horror/thriller that manages to elicit genuine scares and woos its audience with a compelling mystery and amazing production design. It just might be Edgar Wright’s best film!
What did you think of Last Night in Soho? What’s your favorite Edgar Wright film? Let us know in the comments!