A nostalgia soaked horror film from director Edgar Wright is just what we need for this Halloween Weekend, but does it satisfy? My companion for this film was invested in the first two thirds of the movie so much that it rivaled other films of Wright’s for praise, but,there is a turn and a series of actions that happen in the film that stopped her embrace of the film in mid-hug and resulted in a display of invective that I marveled at for a hour. While I did not have the same negative reaction, I did feel the film fall from greatness to mediocrity in the third act. Regardless of it’s ultimate faults, there is still much to recommend for this interesting addition to Wright’s filmography.
I avoid as much as possible, simply recapping the story in these posts, but sometimes you need a little context and this is one of those times. Thomasin McKenzie plays Eloise, a slightly off center girl from a countryside community, who longs to become a fashion designer. Ellie is the kind of kid who is willing to go out in public in clothes she has designed, but she has yet to develop the thick skin needed to deflect the catty comments of schoolmates, who in a two faced manner praise her bravery, but secretly despise her and are jealous of the attention she will generate. Her mother also was interested in the industry but took her life ten years earlier, and Ellie has visions of her Mom on a regular basis. Eloise soaks herself in 60s nostalgia, because that’s the style her Mother and Grandmother knew so well. Peter and Gordon, Dusty Springfield and Petula Clark ring in her head as she moves to London to attend a college of fashion design. When her wold collides with the hipster bitch she is roommates with, she decides to take a flat in a nearby neighborhood and suddenly the distance between the world she lives in and the era of her dreams begins to diminish. New visions of a girl not unlike herself, striving to make it into the pop world as a singer in 1965, fill Eloise’s nights and she gets caught up in another life in a different era, with outcomes much more grim than she is prepared to face.
The 1960s settings are nicely staged with appropriate production details. I especially liked the giant “Thunderball” Poster on the cinema, as well as the stylish women’s fashions of the time. The two nightclubs that Eloise sees in her visions are also startlingly beautiful in a retro way. The most beautiful thing she encounters however is Sandie, the girl aspiring to be a singer who is a near doppelganger for Eloise and who is played by Ana Taylor-Joy. Wright uses some marvelous camera tricks and clever choreography to meld the two girls from fifty years apart into one character that we see at a time, although both are present. This is a horror story in the long run, and the events in the 1960s should be enough to make us pull back in terror at what can become of a girl trying to make it in a world filled with sharks dressed as men. The first part of Sandie’s story is plenty horrifying without having to elaborate too much with blood and viscera. Like all horror stories these days, there has to be a twist and this is where things start to go off the rails a bit.
Eloise’s obsession is turning dangerous and she has difficulty separating her visions from her real life. There is a character set up to tie the two eras together in the real world, and naturally, this is one of the places where Wright has to cheat a bit to get in the surprise that he has in store for us. If you are turned off by characters in horror stories doing illogical things and making unsubstantiated assumptions, then you will start to feel the resentment that I referred to in the opening of this piece. Somewhere out there, a young adult woman would ask some questions that all of us could see might be relevant, not Ellie. She pursues an investigation but she ignores a key term in her search that is sitting right in front of her. The explanation that her nightmarish visions begin to follow her is the best cover that can explain why she acts the way she does, but that seems inadequate and it ignores a lot of options that she had available to her. After successfully creating a real world heroine in Eloise, who can perceive a threat from an otherwise chipper cab driver, you want to scream at her for not looking more closely at the red herring in front of her and the obvious connection to the past that she occupies every night.
At this point, the movie turns into a conventional piece of cinema horror trickery, which uses the distractions of another historical era to misdirect us while the heavy footed plot twist plays out. If you can ignore those irritating moments of character stupidity, then the follow through will be satisfying enough. I for the most part went along with it because I want the magic trick to work. The fact that I noticed the trick movement did not rob me of all the pleasure I’d already had from the film, but those missteps will bother a lot of people more than me. McKenzie and Taylor-Joy are both excellent. They create a real sense of the enthusiasms for a bygone time and watching them revel in the fashion, dance and music of the era is a pleasure. Diana Rigg makes her final screen appearance in this film in a role that is more substantial than you might have expected. The film also features Terrance Stamp who has been menacing and charming and revolting in movies for sixty years now. Stamp gets to show his persona with just a few scenes and some great close ups on his face. Wright gets the most out of the camera and lighting when he is looking at Stamp’s character. It is too bad that this effort gets wasted as a plot device rather than an essential plot component.
Edgar Wright has a number of films to his credit that I have loved. His sense of humor is terrific and he has an editors eye as a director, he is capable of creating a scene in our mind that works because he knows how long the shot should last and where to cut it and what kinds of transitions to make. As a storyteller, he has taken some sharp left turns over the years that work, but maybe that is because of the genre he was working in. The tone shift and plot twist in “Last Night in Soho” don’t hold together as well as the work he has done before. I would still recommend the movie, but if you get whiplash from third act character actions, don’t say I did not warn you.