The New Territory of Edgar Wright
The nostalgia is alive, healthy, yet retro in a new direction of praise for Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho. Peaking from the 1960s through the 1990s, “alive” might not be the correct adjective in this context. “Dead” is a possible word, but “unhealthy” is also a debatable word. The film turns nostalgia into a nightmare haunted by ghosts, a first for Wright. It is a departure from his usual comedic moments and marks his first venture into a narrative film that supports a story rather than simply framing it.
Since his horror-comedy debut titled Shaun of the Dead, he has explored various stories within established genres, including alien pollination, robberies, and a comic book adaptation about Ant-Man, a baby driver, and a buddy cop story embellished with thick accents, quick cuts, perfectly timed music beats, and action-packed scenes captured with zippy cameras.
In his new film, he contributes to the latest wave of giallo-style movies, similar to Malignant directed by James Wan. Drawing on stylistic influences from Italian masters such as Dario Argento and Mario Bava, Wright’s deeply masculine yet exploitative style takes on a new dimension. He places a woman at the center, creating a gloomy reality of exploitation similar to Damien Chazelle’s La La Land but in the horror genre, modernizing style and substance.
A Smell of 60s
Before Eloise or Ellie moved to London for college, her grandmother had warned her about the presence of many bad people in the city. This setup serves as the foundation for the horror and nostalgia narrative in Last Night in Soho. The sentence builds up Ellie’s anticipation and shapes her perspective on the experiences she encounters, as if she were a country girl moving to a big city. The audience also anticipates and experiences everything through Ellie’s eyes, making Wright’s latest work an incredibly compelling psychological mystery or horror.
There is nothing scarier than a woman feeling attacked by men from all directions. Ellie’s insecurity about her living situation drives her to seek refuge in another era or time. Wright achieves this by creating a film that feels like a kind of time travel. Every time Ellie sleeps in her boarding room, she is transported to the retro-filled 60s. Through the eyes of Sandie, a girl pursuing her dream of becoming a singer, Ellie sees the world in a different light, inspiring her own aspirations of becoming a fashion designer. From the beginning, Ellie has been obsessed with everything related to the 60s, eagerly waiting to experience the glamor of Sandie’s era once again.
It is just the beginning. As Ellie struggles through her first night at the university dorm, she encounters a more mundane character. She feels alienated because her roommate, Jocasta, pushes her to leave the hall and find her place. For Ellie, the change of scene is welcome, but it is almost certainly the beginning of the real problem. Framed at night by the dazzling red and blue neon light from a cafe, her room looks deathly pale. While lost in daydreams of ’60s shows and ballads, she is whisked away to an alternative fantasy London. Ellie embodies and observes the character of Sandie, a confident, intelligent, yet ambitious young star, played by Taylor-Joy, whose star power initially played Ellie. However, as production progressed, McKenzie, who portrayed Ellie, was brought on board, leading to a change in characters, and the film became a two-part story, showing the shy yet humble contemporary student compared to the street stars of the ’60s. However, day by day, the lines between the two characters begin to blur.
When Ellie sleeps at night, she enters a lucid dream, a mental portal to Soho some 60 years earlier. Through the eyes of a beautiful and confident young woman named Sandie, Ellie witnesses her journey to London to become a star. Sandie meets Jack, who becomes her manager and love interest, and Ellie is fascinated by the surface details of her dream. The next day, Ellie finds her fashion school designs inspired by Sandie’s looks, even changing her hairstyle and buying vintage couture to resemble her. Consequently, she begins to prioritize her 60s dream at night and withdraws from interactions with real people, living for nostalgia.
However, the setting takes a twisted and terrifying turn when Jack’s true motives are revealed. The romanticized past that Ellie initially embraced becomes a nightmare as Sandie becomes entangled in a world of exploitation and abuse by entrepreneurs. Ellie, now a silent observer, follows Sandie’s experiences as she witnesses the mistreatment of women. Quickly, it turns into the nightmare Ellie desperately wants to escape, a haunting trip to an unfortunate ’60s fantasy world.
Soho was once a vibrant club with everything from music to art, but now most of it has been replaced by luxury shops and restaurants since the 60s. Odile Dicks-Mireaux and Marcus Rowland successfully capture the vintage style’s splendor, from bold color patterns to florals. However, Ellie’s interests remained superficial, focused on fashion and pop music, while her knowledge of the harsh realities of everyday life proved limited. Wright uncovers the true Soho during its heyday, a place where men treated women as mere objects. Women were used and discarded, chewed up and forgotten, despite the location being a hub for iconic sounds and looks. However, it also saw countless instances of human exploitation due to the revelry and liberation attitude of the times, providing a breeding ground for predators like Jack and his clients.
Ellie finds herself trapped in this world as she experiences it through Sandie’s perspective in her nighttime dreamland. This dream becomes a trap, blurring the boundaries between consciousness, reality, fantasy, and sleep. It starts to disrupt her schoolwork and prevents her from connecting with fellow students, as she struggles to differentiate between her dream world and the real world.
Giallo and British B-movies
Viewing the film through a more objective lens, Wright discusses his influences on the film. He notably included Argento’s Suspiria, an Italian giallo genre film, which is a hybrid of horror, thriller, and mystery. The pieces fit perfectly in the setting of Soho, evoking a heavy past for Eloise’s mother, scaring her with the fear that history might repeat itself. As the film gradually unravels, Ellie loses some of her identity, becoming part of London’s anonymity.
Ellie experiences terrifying and all-too-real dreams at night, transitioning from fantasy to nightmare rapidly. Alongside giallo influences, Wright also draws from exploitation films of the 1960s, especially British B-movies. These B-movies often centered on the struggles of women facing unpleasant encounters in the seedy setting of Soho. Last Night in Soho builds upon this film legacy, utilizing the unique exploits and nostalgic praise associated with the B-movie genre.
In essence, the film punishes women for daring to seek independent lives and careers. Soho exposes an innate weakness and fear within Ellie and Sandie, who become prey to the beautiful yet sinister fantasy simultaneously. It serves as a reminder that no era is perfect, and nostalgia can be dangerous.
Last Night in Soho not only praises nostalgia but also portrays dedication to London. While the city can be a beautiful place full of possibilities and dreams, it can also quickly crush and tear people apart. This temperament is true not only for Ellie and Sandie but also for many others who came before and will come after them. London is a city of intrigue and mystery, but its power can be dangerous and dark, leading to a world of exploitation.
Wright skillfully evokes a sense of unpleasant dealings in the late-night red-light district venues of Soho. The neighborhood itself becomes a real character in the film, with an ambitious finale that is not just stylish and slick, but emotionally and thematically satisfying. Wright establishes a central character with believable emotions and leaves a trail of exploits that avoid the cheesiness often associated with original films.
The film serves as a flashback to a cultural product and its creators, capturing the essence of London and the complexities of human experiences within its streets.
- Sippell, M. (2021). How an Embarrassing Encounter With a High School Crush Influenced Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho. MovieMaker Magazine.
- Seth, R. (2021). Last Night In Soho’s Costumes Are A Sinister Ode To The Swinging Sixties. British Vogue.