After spending a good chunk of his career dancing around the genre, Edgar Wright has finally attempted a horror-thriller film. Yet this is no parody, à la his 2004 breakout Shaun of the Dead, but something relatively more straightforward. Set alternately in present-day Soho and in the semi-mythical “swinging London” of the ’60s, Last Night in Soho draws inspiration from cinematic styles popular half a century ago. Chief among these is the “woman losing her grip on reality” trope popularized by Roman Polanski’s 1965 film Repulsion. But Wright also incorporates elements of the Italian murder mysteries of the giallo genre. And while it can be excruciating to fully litigate the boundaries of film genre, at the very least, Last Night in Soho does fall into one particular giallo pitfall: It sets itself up within a strong concept and notable images, before falls apart when it tries to fully seal the deal.
Written by Wright and Krysty Wilson-Cairns, the movie first centers on Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie), a timid country mouse who’s obsessed with the ’60s and dreams of becoming a fashion designer. It’s not clear if Eloise has the gift of seeing ghosts or is simply burdened by her family history, but it’s established early on that she sees visions of her mother, who committed suicide when Eloise was just a little girl. That’s one reason why her grandmother (Rita Tushingham) worries about her as she runs off to London in pursuit of her heart’s desire. Another is that “the city isn’t safe for a young girl,” particularly a naïve one. But Eloise gets a lesson pretty early on, in the form of a lewd cab driver who’s a little too interested in the exact location of her dormitory. Fitting in at design school is a struggle as well for her, given that her roommate, Jocasta (Synnøve Karlsen), isn’t the greatest. Jocasta’s cutting remarks and callous disregard prompt Eloise to use the last of her scant resources to find some off-campus housing — namely, a studio apartment rented out by the motherly Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg, in her final screen role), who hasn’t updated the attic room in her creaky old house in decades. Which, of course, is just the way Eloise likes it.
That a freshman student can afford a whole studio to herself in central London is perhaps the first clue that things are headed in a fantastical direction, though the second is even more disconcerting: shortly after moving in, Eloise begins having vivid, intoxicating dreams that transport her back to 1966. Part time travel, part haunting, Eloise’s nightly visions connect her to a previous resident of her room, Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), a glamorous aspiring singer who has all the confidence and charm Eloise lacks. At first, Eloise can’t wait to fall asleep, savoring the opportunity to strut through lavish nightclubs in the fashions she’s been daydreaming about all her life. (Odile Dicks-Mireaux’s era-blending, sugar-spun costumes are a high point.) But, soon enough, Sandie’s suave “manager,” Jack (Matt Smith), begins to show his true, violent face, and Sandie/Eloise’s dream life turns into a sordid, violent nightmare, featuring numerous male phantoms, a visual manifestation of the film’s rather heavy-handed theme of the ubiquity of sexual violence.
There’s plenty of promise in this premise, but the large problem with the script is how quickly it reaches its point of realization, and how repetitively it runs in place for the remainder of the film’s inordinate two-hour runtime. Red herrings are trailed long after they’ve become obviously irrelevant; a single variety of a VFX-enhanced jump scare is recycled across multiple samey set-pieces; a romance between Eloise and gentle, sensitive student John (Michael Ajao) stays stubbornly tentative and feels more like plot device than a genuine relationship.
It’s not the only dropped ball: A desperate third-act narrative twist doesn’t totally undermine the film’s feminist heart, but it does leave a bitter aftertaste. The larger problem with that lies in the shallow characterizations. Perhaps if there was more to Sandie than victimhood and fabulous dresses, and more complexity to Eloise’s motivations, these stumbling blocks would be more easily cleared. But as in Wright’s last film, Baby Driver, he plays in straightforward narratives and forms, but his characters are shiny objects first and people second — a choice that assures that Last Night in Soho‘s merits can only carry it so far. For Wright, dialing back the jokes shouldn’t have to mean dialing back the humanity as well. The bracing panache of Last Night in Soho can be quite titillating, but sadly it’s entangled with a narrative that falls into one-note repetition and a certain superficiality.
Last Night in Soho is playing in Theaters nationwide