‘Last Night in Soho’ is a Creepy and Captivating Celebration of Italian Horror (Review)

by | Oct 26, 2021

Giallos are far from the most accessible horror subgenre; a lot of them are often sold as straightforward horror films but end up being slow-burn mysteries with little gore and suspense until the third act, while the journeys within them are populated with several jarring mood changes and shifts in tone. Leave it to the genius of writer-director Edgar Wright and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns to make the genre accessible for general American audiences with Last Night In Soho, a mesmerizing, engrossing and eerie mystery-horror film that wears its Italian giallo influences on its sleeve, takes viewers back in time to 1960s London with a massive, energetic soundtrack, and is as wondrous as it is unnerving thanks to creative visuals. 

Last Night In Soho follows Ellie Turner (Thomasin McKenzie), a British country girl with a fascination for all the trends of the 1960s and a lot on her mind, from her decade-long grief over the death of her mother when she was a child to lifelong aspirations of being a fashion designer, which she gets to bring to life upon learning she’s been accepted into the London College of Fashion. Upon getting there, however, she is immediately overwhelmed by the vastness of the city, seen as inferior by her stuck-up suitemates and hit on by a creepy cab driver. 

Desperate for a way out, she moves out of her dorm and into a room for rent in the city’s Soho district that’s owned by the strict crone Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg, in her final on-screen role). Ellie’s first night in her new flat brings more than a pleasant night’s sleep; she finds herself transported into the world of her dreams, that being 1960s-era London, where she finds herself existing as Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), a young woman looking to fulfill her own dreams of singing on stage. Sandie saunters into a lavish club and catches the attention of Jack (Matt Smith), who immediately agrees to give her an audition in front of an executive who can give her a start in the entertainment industry. 

Ellie sees Sandie as everything she wants to be: beautiful, confident, talented and strong, and strives to be more like her in her waking life. Ellie changes her hairstyle to match Sandie’s, she designs dresses based on the ones she wears, takes up a job as a bartender frequented by a silver haired gentleman (Terence Stamp), and even forms a friendship with her classmate John (Michael Ajao). However, Ellie’s blissful dreams soon turn to living nightmares that bleed into her present-day reality in the form of menacing ghosts. From there, she takes it upon herself to learn the answers to the questions of whether or not Sandie really existed and what kind of person she was, and whether the spectres that haunt her are real or a figment of her psyche fractured by grief. 

After crafting a live-action comic book with Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World and syncing action sequences to an eclectic soundtrack in Baby Driver, Last Night In Soho is another testament to Edgar Wright’s creativity and ambition as a filmmaking auteur, as evidenced by his ability to take a traditional coming-of-age story about a young woman gaining her inner strength and execute it in the style of a modern day giallo. This is done not only in the gripping mystery that blends supernatural and psychological elements, but also visually through a use of deep red and blue lighting that blankets Ellie and Sandie in a given nightmare, entrapping one or both of them in the film’s most terror-filled moments. The fright on their faces feels real in part due to the strength of the two lead actresses; McKenzie’s eyes evoke wonder and excitement over the possibilities she has upon entering London, only to grow wider in fear the further she goes down the rabbit hole to which the dreams are leading her. Meanwhile, Taylor-Joy continues to establish herself as a stellar young actress with incredible range as Sandie, who commands the stage with sultriness during her audition, only to snap with sharp resistance and aggression when her pursuit for stardom takes an unexpected turn. 

The visuals also do a splendid job of blending both 1960s-era editing techniques with Chung-Hoon Chung’s kinetic cinematography; such as when multiple superimposed silhouettes of Sandie dance on screen in a line at once under stylized lighting and with a lens distortion, while long, sweeping tracking shots assume Ellie’s perspective as she explores Sandie’s world and the Cafe du Paris for the first time. What’s also remarkable about Last Night In Soho is its production and costume design; the exteriors of 1960s London are beautifully recreated with gorgeous authenticity and lavish attention to detail. 

This extends into the visual effects that are seamless in their efforts to place Eloise’s reflection where Sandie’s would be in the grand theater’s hypnotic mirrors, and in the exact spot Jack leads Sandie in their first dance together while the camera circles around the couple in a long, unbroken take, only adding to the story’s wonder and spectacle. It’s also worth noting that while most contemporary films tend to base their sound designs around needle drops solely meant to keep the energy of a scene at its highest, the soundtrack here is not only authentic to the era in which Ellie’s dream world is set, but it also serves to dryly convey her mental state in a given scene, such as when Ellie finds herself surrounded by the monstrous ghosts that have populated her present-day realm while the Sandie Shaw rendition of “Always Something There To Remind Me” underscores her need to escape them. 

On that point, the jokes here are sparsely distributed throughout the film’s two-hour runtime, primarily taking shape as dry snark in casual conversations. That’s not necessarily a bad thing considering Last Night In Soho is a horror movie first, it’s just a noticeable absence given Wright’s previous work. Some viewers may also be left wanting more of Ellie’s grief-stricken psyche to be explored, because the script mostly mentions her family’s history of mental health only when it’s needed.

But grief has been a topic of exploration in a myriad of other recent movies, and Edgar Wright aims to make every film he directs different from the ones that came before it, and Last Night In Soho succeeds at doing just that as one of the best and most unique horror films of the year. Audiences will be unnerved and on the edge of their seat from beginning to end thanks to the frightening mood Wright constructs with deep and colorful visuals, be kept guessing what’s really going on over the course of the mystery’s many twists and turns, and feel the emotional gut punch of the story he and Wilson-Cairns tell with timely themes that strike a powerful chord at the film’s visceral climax. The film will also help budding horror enthusiasts understand Italian giallos more than they did going in, and seasoned aficionados will recognize and appreciate the references to old thrillers Wright plants throughout his depiction of modern-day London. If you’re looking for another horror film to watch this Halloween weekend and want to see something other than what’s already out, Last Night In Soho should be first on your list.

Review: 4.5/5