REVIEW: Edgar Wright crafts a hypnotic and visually alluring horror film in ‘Last Night in Soho’

Boyce Rucker, Intern

While director Edgar Wright has previously melded together different genres, like the zombie thriller with a comedic spin in “Shaun of the Dead,” or the heist genre with musical elements in “Baby Driver,” “Last Night in Soho” may be his first full-on horror film. Wright’s latest work is a surprising and visually mesmerizing horror film boosted by strong performances and a visual aesthetic that transforms the streets of London into a place of paranoia and mystery. 

The film centers on young aspiring fashion designer Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie), as she travels to London from her countryside home to attend the London College of Fashion. Eloise has a strong passion for the music and clothing styles of the 60s, which she reflects in her clothing choices and fashion designs; she is also haunted by the memory of her late mother who committed suicide when she was seven years old. Her difficulty to fit in with other students, including her roommate, prompts her to move into a one-room apartment owned by Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg, in her final film role). During her stay, she’s mysteriously transported to the 60s, where she witnesses the life of Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), a young woman looking to make it big as a glamorous showroom singer. As Eloise learns more of Sandie’s life, particularly her romantic relationship with her manager Jack (Matt Smith), the glamorous tale turns into a darkly twisted narrative that affects her life in the present-day.

Thomasin McKenzie in “Last Night in Soho” (2021). (Parisa Taghizadeh/Focus Features)

Wright crafts characters that are engaging and reflective of an idealized lifestyle, or aspiration in the two leads’ case. Wright does with Eloise what he previously did with Baby (Ansel Elgort) in “Baby Driver.” In the case of Baby, he could easily be seen as the hotshot cool guy who lives by a code with his special driving skills and his deep connection with music; however, while some of his antics are heroic, near the film’s climax, he’s still a criminal who has to pay for his involvement in heists and be separated from his love interest. Similarly, Eloise is enamoured by the alluring and stylish nature of the 60s, even going as far as to adopt Sandie’s traits, like her blonde hair and basing her fashion project on Sandie’s pink dress. One could see this as Eloise paying a humble tribute to the 60s culture, but she doesn’t yet realize the darker side to this, until she further delves into Sandie’s story.

Sandie’s story almost plays out as a standard fairytale for a starlet. We see her enter the lavish dance hall of the Café de Paris nightclub, as she’s approached and flirted with by an outspoken gentleman, before she’s swept away by Jack’s ravishing charm. Sandie walks into this setting as a confident woman with the main objective of becoming the next major showgirl and showcases the talent to do so, but it’s the desire for fame, as well as the empty promise of it, that leads her down a dark path. This leads to her being sexually exploited by the businessmen who frequent the club and her chances of being a singer in ruins as she undergoes a downward spiral.

Anya Taylor-Joy and Matt Smith in “Last Night in Soho” (2021). (Parisa Taghizadeh/Focus Features)

Aspiration is a strong theme of the film, as the two leads are fueled by their ambition to pursue their respective passions, but toxic masculinity and the expectations of others are obstacles that keep them from reaching their potential. While films this year like “Promising Young Woman” and “The Last Duel” have dealt with toxic masculinity and misogyny, “Last Night in Soho” emphasizes the horrific nature of these harmful traits, even in literal manifestations as viewers will come to see. Co-screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns notes that toxic masculinity can be a fearful thing for women everywhere and even likens the film to a “Trojan horse,” in that it obviously offers entertainment, but sheds light on bigger issues. This Trojan Approach has worked especially well in the horror genre with films like “Get Out” and “Candyman”, but it works so effectively with this film as it differs from Wright’s previous work.

Wright deploys a distinct look and style to the film that conveys a chilling atmosphere, while paying homage to classic horror films. Chung Chung-hoon’s cinematography is cold and eerie, as he makes the neon-lit London streets into a nightmarish setting defined by dread and paranoia. The constant neon lighting and use of deep red and blue color schemes are comparable to the look and feeling of Dario Argento’s “Suspiria,” both present instances of beautiful imagery that still convey unease. This look is just as effective and captivating as the glamorous 60s London that boasts excellent production design to recreate clubs and venues from the time period, which is also complemented by the cast’s richly extravagant costumes. 

This fearsome and unique look is topped off by the experimental camera and editing techniques that provide some of the film’s most horrific elements in a fashion akin to that of David Lynch. This comparison is especially noticeable during a memorable sequence in a nightclub set to “Happy House” by Siouxsie and the Banshees. The scene is a culmination of all the film’s aesthetic elements, such as lighting and production design, where nearly-faceless apparitions stalk Eloise at a party and they’re introduced in a distorted visage. This is just one of the film’s most horrific sequences.

Thomasin McKenzie in “Last Night in Soho” (2021). (Parisa Taghizadeh/Focus Features)

The two leads give impeccable performances for the psychological horror film. McKenzie delivers a naturalistic portrayal of Eloise as a driven individual deeply bound to the past, whether it be her strong admiration for the 60s, or the haunting of her character’s past. She portrays the character’s quietness and curiosity exceedingly well, in that she gauges empathy for her drive to succeed and gains admiration for her strength and vulnerability as the main character. While Taylor-Joy does not share the same amount of screen time as McKenzie, she still communicates the importance of her character. Her lesser screen time actually works in her favor, as the audience is compelled to pay more attention to her character. She effectively expresses the character’s confidence and slight naivete that makes her dark path so tragic, whether it be when she sings for an audition, or protests being offered up to the club patrons. Both stars lend emotional weight to the film’s unnerving content and atmosphere.

“Last Night in Soho” is an atmospheric horror film that allows Wright to utilize his signature style outside of his established comedy genre. The film presents themes of toxic masculinity in a horrific way that will force viewers to greatly contemplate the continuance of such masculinity in the present day. With such a diverse assortment of unique films, one can only guess what Wright will tackle next.