2021 has been a shockingly good year for big-budget horror movies. In only a few months we’ve gotten films like Candyman, Malignant, and the Fear Street trilogy, all of which are easily going to be contenders for best horror movie of the year. But for my money, I was most excited for Last Night in Soho. To see a new Edgar Wright movie is always a joy, but to see him delve headfirst into making a horror film was something that I needed to see. Yes, Shaun of the Dead is a horror-comedy classic, but its purpose was never to scare you.
Admittingly, Last Night in Soho doesn’t seem like a film that wants to scare you either. It wants to transport you into another world, to a time when music was good (at least all of the characters seem to think that), to a time when Thunderball was the most anticipated movie in the world, to a time where being in the big city means anything was possible if you could dream enough about it. But the longer we stay in that world, the more that the cracks start to form until that pleasant reflection of the past eventually shatters and you’re left with a nightmare to clean up. Last Night in Soho may not be the cleanest horror movie of the year, but it’s arguably the best-directed horror movie of the year.
Last Night in Soho
Director: Edgar Wright
Release Date: October 29, 2021
Last Night in Soho follows Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie), a university student at a fashion institute in London who moves out of the university’s dorm after dealing with some typically pompous fashionista bullies. She finds a quiet loft to rent in Soho, but when she sleeps in her new room, she is transported back in time to the 60s. While in the past, she follows a singer named Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy) as she attempts to book gigs and perform in various clubs throughout London. She gets her foot into the door thanks to a man named Jack (Matt Smith), which allows Ellie to live vicariously through Sandie until Sandie’s idyllic life comes crashing down, providing negative repercussions to Ellie’s present as well.
At its core, Last Night in Soho is a ghost story. Throughout the film, it is implied that Ellie can see ghosts and interact with them in some capacity. The film doesn’t really hide the fact that Ellie’s visions of the 1960s are through someone who is dead, but the film does make sure to show off just how exciting the past truly is. Ellie frequently wants to escape to it, whether that be through her love of classic rock or her ignoring the problems that she faces at university. Last Night in Soho feels like two separate stories that are weaved together in exciting and interesting ways, with each story complimenting each other and enhancing elements in the other.
But as is often the case, those pleasant moments slowly start to spiral out of control the longer she stays in the past. We start to see how Sandie’s dream life goes south the same way any movie showing a girl who shows up to a big city wanting to be a star goes. It’s not exactly original in that regard, and I would say that for the most part, Last Night in Soho plays it safe for most of its runtime. Problems escalate in the present, Ellie’s sanity is called into question, reality starts to blend with the spiritual world until you’re left wondering just what’s really going on, so on and so forth. It’s not entirely unique, but it is highly engaging.
The one major area of criticism that I do have toward the overall plot and theming of the movie is its depiction of mental health. I admit that I am not an expert when it comes to this, but the movie never fully commits to whether or not Ellie can see ghosts or if it comes from some kind of mental illness. The film states early on that her family does suffer from schizophrenia, so it becomes frustrating when Ellie loses her grip on reality and you’re not clear if it’s because the spirits are altering her perception or if this is some mental health issue that she is willfully ignoring. It muddies the water on her character and makes certain scenes frustrating. Characters will tell her that she needs some form of support or that she needs to ask others for help and it does, at times, fall into some unfortunate tropes on depicting people with mental health issues as just being crazy.
That being said, regardless of if these moments come from some supernatural ability or some form of mental illness, the film depicts Ellie and Sandie’s story beautifully. The use of color, red in particular, is striking and creates a real ethereal and seedy vibe. The sequences in the past are immediately framed as dangerous once the red lights come into play and are used often enough to really accentuate the other-worldly nature of the ghosts when they seep into the present. The ghosts are also designed in a wonderfully creepy way, with numerous superimposed versions of the actors with smeared-away faces, leaving no discernable facial features that make them look surprisingly monstrous.
It’s clear by now that Edgar Wright knows how to make a good movie and Last Night in Soho is probably his most technically proficient film. Certain scenes are framed and shot beautifully, in particular whenever he lets the characters sing or dance. I can totally see him directing a musical in the future because he knows how to shoot a dance number. Having one continuous take where Matt Smith dances between a constantly swapping Ellie and Sandie only further proved that Wright needs to make a musical before her retires.
Other scenes, like when the ghosts are intruding and following Ellie, make them look truly frightening and strangely reminded me of the video game Condemned: Criminal Origins where they menacingly stand in a line and do nothing but stare at her. Plus the film will often go from zero to ten in intensity by having Matt Smith barge into previously safe moments of levity just to rip Ellie/Sandie into the depraved world of show business.
By the time Last Night in Soho began to wrap up, I will admit that I wasn’t fully satisfied by some of the decisions that it made. I loved the twists that were taken and how the purpose of several minor characters shifted as the movie progressed, reframing certain scenes in a way that make me want to rewatch the film and see little bits and pieces I overlooked before. But while I loved those moments, it did drag itself out just a smidge too long and drag during the second act. This ultimately resulted in a climax that made me question the behavior of the ghosts and their role within the world and their purpose up until the chaotic and trippy climax.
I know that may just be overanalyzing the film at this point, and make no mistake Last Night in Soho is a film worth examining, but I only make such comments because even with a tiny bit of tweaking, we could have had a genre classic here. It does so many things right and is one of the best ghosts stories I’ve seen in the past several years. But it has just enough little elements that could be improved that prevent me from saying that this is going to be a film you will love no matter what. It’s a good time and fans of Edgar Wright are sure to be pleased. As long as you go into it expecting that it’s not a perfect horror movie by any definition of the word, you’ll find yourself having a good time.