Marking director Edgar Wright’s return to horror, Last Night in Soho threw the audience several curveballs. With the film out this week on DVD and Blu-ray, Melissa Cox untangles the threads of time, space, mental health and hauntings…
When I watched the trailers for Edgar Wright’s Last Night In Soho, I didn’t expect that it would become my favourite horror film of 2021 – I didn’t think that I’d be watching a horror film at all. The snippets we got were definitely intriguing, hinting at a time-travel mystery happening in parallel timelines set in the 1960s and 2020s. The actual film delves much deeper than its initial time-warping conceit, exploring our uncertain and fearful relationships to past and place.
Taking place in present-day central London, the film opens with Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie), a shy, 60s-obsessed fashion student from Redruth who lands a place at a prestigious university in London. After (pretty understandably) struggling to fit in with her obnoxious roommate, she chances on a bedsit down the road in Fitzrovia, let by landlady Ms Collins (Diana Rigg), who has lived there since the 60s. Ellie is delighted with her new digs, which are complete with period features including a rotary landline phone and the overspill of neon light from nearby premises.
But when she goes to sleep in her new bed, she finds herself swept into a vivid dream of swinging 60s Soho, full of brightly-lit cinema marquees, glamorous clubs, and a young woman, Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), who Ellie follows through her reflection in the mirrors of the club. At first entranced by this vision, Ellie soon sees the darker path that Sandie’s life takes, and becomes convinced that she has witnessed an unsolved murder in the past. Still struggling with her own anxieties, Ellie tries to investigate this historical crime, all the while becoming increasingly plagued by ghostly visions. The vengeful forces of both living and dead come to the fore in the climax, and Ellie must confront her own demons and imaginings from the past.
Last Night In Soho is Wright’s first outright horror film, for whilst the Cornetto Trilogy dealt with zombies, folk horror and alien invasion, they were arguably comedies first and horror second. And although it has the trappings of a glossy mystery, Last Night In Soho is at heart a story of the supernatural, and a genuinely frightening one. A common trope in supernatural horror is to introduce an element of doubt as to whether the occurrences are really happening, or in the mind of the protagonist. While Eloise does have worries about her own metal health, it is made clear to the viewer that her experiences are genuinely paranormal. She sees her deceased mother clearly at both the start and end of the film, and her grandmother acknowledges that this is something that happens regularly.
Ellie, like Danny Torrance or The Sixth Sense’s Cole, is a horror movie protagonist that has experienced supernatural phenomena for so long that it is a part of their everyday life. For these characters, it is the nature of the haunting, rather than the haunting itself, that is the source of peril. Ellie’s sensitivity to the supernatural is hugely amplified when she moves to Ms Collins’ house, with its literal skeletons hidden beneath the floorboards. By placing Ellie in this location, Soho combines the narrative structures of two types of horror – the psychically-gifted protagonist isolated from others because of their abilities, and the haunted house which poses a direct and immediate threat. There is a feeling of fate that adds to the gothic flavour of the film – the events unfolding could only take place because this specific person has encountered this specific place.
If the film has a haunted house in Ellie’s bedsit, it also expands the bounds of this haunting to an entire geographical area. The precise setting of the film in Soho, and the use of actual locations, adds to both the wonder and horror of the film – grounding the fantastical 60s visions in reality, but simultaneously grounding the terror in a real landscape. The idea of cities having their own character within a film has become almost a cliché in cinema, but despite this, they are often represented on screen by more affordable stand-ins, or have their geography cut and pasted to nudge recognisable locations closer together. Although this is generally accepted as part of the suspension of disbelief inherent to film, the impossible geography of most city-set films lends a slight cinematic unreality to the places shown, separating the audience from what is happening. Last Night In Soho firmly locates both the story and the audience in a very specific area of central London – we see real street signs, and can follow the characters around a real, logical geography. Co-writers Edgar Wright and Krysty Wilson-Cairns had both spent significant time in Soho, an area described by Wright as the “only area of London that is essentially 24/7” – Wilson-Cairns actually working at The Toucan, the pub at which Ellie gets a job.
Wright and Wilson-Cairns craft a story that takes place in a more tangible Soho, rather than a generic London seen more often on screen. There are no establishing shots of Tower Bridge or Buckingham Palace, just the day-to-day places that Ellie visits: the university, her halls, her flat, and the local pubs. Having this definite geography enhances the impact when Ellie has her first vision of 60s Soho: her everyday haunts have suddenly burst into 1960s technicolour. When her visions become more disturbing, the sense of danger is increased by the fact that all the locations she has seen are all objectively still there in the present day. Ellie’s detective mission is given more urgency by the fact that she is seeing direct parallels between her everyday reality and Sandie’s 1960s world. Soho’s narrow streets and tall buildings give the setting a sense of claustrophobia, full of alleys, dead ends and basements that trap both Ellie and Sandie. Ellie barely ventures outside the tiny area between her university, her flat and the pub – Soho becomes her own private island, surrounded by the constantly flowing thoroughfares of Oxford St, Regent St and Tottenham Court Road.
Wright has used soundtracks to great effect in his past films – the needle-drops in Shaun of the Dead, live music as a mode of battle in Scott Pilgrim vs, the World and the constant background of Baby’s playlists in Baby Driver. Music is a significant presence in Last Night In Soho too, and the specific songs track the emotional arcs of both the main characters. Music is a source of comfort for Ellie – her vinyl records are a connection to her family, and she uses large headphones to shield herself from the noise created by her obnoxious flatmates. For Sandie, music represents ambition – her power and sense of identity stems from her skills in singing and dancing. In Ellie’s first vision, it is when Sandie starts dancing that Ellie is drawn out from the mirrors, and more fully into the 1960s world.
Sandie’s relationship to music begins to falter as she becomes manipulated by Jack: she goes from confidently singing acapella at the club audition and dominating the floor at the Café de Paris, to miming to stilted version of “Puppet On A String” and being coerced to listlessly dancing in order to catch the eye of potential clients. At the height of Ellie’s paranoia, there is a set piece at a Halloween party set to Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Happy House”, a deadpan, sinister number that reflects both Ellie’s growing anxieties and the darker turn taken in Sandie’s life.
So much of horror deals with the past – the uncanny return of the repressed, the restless ghost whose history demands to be told, the secrets of the haunted house. Last Night In Soho highlights the fact that the past is not a fixed set of facts, but an ever-changing story, shifting in meaning. Ellie at first over-romanticises the 60s – the era is clearly a link for her to her grandmother and her late mother, and she immerses herself in the music and fashion of the era as a way of strengthening this comforting bond. Ellie has an idealised yet fragile idea of the decade, made up of carefully selected pieces like the newspaper dress she wears in the opening scene. Similarly her first visions are of a fantastical, glamorous version of 60s London, the ideal of the decade she already imagines, but although she goes on to be faced with the darker side of Sandie’s history, she still filters the information she receives through her own particular lens.
As she explores the past, she misinterprets actual events – not noticing the string of stories about missing men in the newspaper archives, as she is looking selectively for evidence to back up a story she believes she already knows. The film demonstrates the impossibility of ever truly knowing the full truth about the past, even when it has been witnessed first hand.
One of the reasons that I personally related to Last Night In Soho is that, like Eloise, I was once a 90s teenager in London who was meandering about the pubs and clubs of Soho – dressing in (much cheaper) vintage charity shop finds, getting Kinks records on vinyl and watching The Prisoner on dodgy VHS. Parts of British culture in the 90s were fervently enamoured with 60s nostalgia – Britpop bands deified their 60s influences, the Euro 96 football tournament elicited endless comparisons with the 1966 World Cup. But rather than giving the film a comfortable feeling of familiarity, this parallel with my own teenage experience only sharpens the uneasiness of seeing a past era held up as a golden age.
Being now at an age when a decade I remember well is now the go-to for retro flashbacks, the themes of Soho have a strong resonance. The 90s are now sometimes held up as a more wholesome, innocent time, mainly due to being the final years of the pre-internet age. Many recent retro horrors – even those like the Fear Street films that seem at first glance to be focused around fun, poppy nostalgia – are not only acknowledging the deep societal injustices of the time, but actively building their stories around these themes. As Ellie discovers through her journey into Soho’s past, there never was any such thing as the good old days.
Horror of the 2010s is likely to be remembered for a tendency towards works characterised by a bleak, serious intensity, such as Hereditary, The VVitch and The Babadook. Franchise blockbusters like The Conjuring and Insidious treated their subject matter too with a straight face, keeping their colours muted and focussing on pure scares. As we enter the 2020s, there seems to be a resurgence of a more pulpy style of horror movie. Tongue-in-cheek slashers like Freaky, the Chucky TV series and the new Scream have injected humour into the genre, and James Wan’s bizarre, over-the-top Malignant proved a massive, if divisive, hit. Although Last Night In Soho doesn’t fit the horror-comedy mould, it shares with Malignant a hefty dose of melodrama and strong Giallo influences (see this thread from Twitter user @slasherbaddies for a comprehensive list of images from Wright’s film mirroring shots from Italian horror). Visual comedy has long been a trademark of Wright’s directing style, and he uses the same stylistic flair in Last Night In Soho to unsettle the audience.
However, anchored by strong and committed lead performances from McKenzie and Taylor-Joy, Last Night In Soho takes itself just seriously enough that the audience is swept along with Ellie, into a dramatic, exuberant and neon-lit thriller.
Last Night in Soho is available now on DVD and Blu-ray.