Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Last Night in Soho scares best when it leans on visuals


Initially, the prospect of director Edgar Wright helming a horror movie may seem like a drastic change of course for the director behind comedies containing lines like "Freeze! Vegan police!" But horror has always played a part in Wright's most famous works. Shaun of the Dead is a zombie movie pastiche, while the other two entries in the Cornetto Trilogy (Hot Fuzz and The World's End) also utilized the visual language of this genre. Considering all that, Wright's Last Night in Soho is less of an overhaul of Wright's style as it is a lateral move for the filmmaker. Previous Wright movies were comedies with moments of horror, this is a horror movie with moments of comedy.

Last Night in Soho follows country girl Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie), who has dreams of being a fashion designer in London. However, she's constantly haunted by visions of her deceased mom and, more pressingly, has an obsession with the past, specifically, the 1960s. When she arrives at a prestigious fashion academy in London, Eloise finds herself so isolated by her classmates and dorm roommate that she ends up packing her things and settling in a small room elsewhere. Here, Eloise begins to have nighttime fantasies where she inhabits the body of Sandy (Anya Taylor-Joy), a young woman coming to London in the 1960s with dreams of being a music superstar.

Initially, it all feels like a dream come true, as Eloise gets whisked away in her slumber to a past that seems more welcoming than a present defined by trauma and social anxiety. But soon, it becomes clear things aren't all peachy-keen in the past. Eloise is going to have to confront the darkness lurking in her trips to the 1960s, especially once the past begins seeping into her daytime life.

Edgar Wright's gift for visuals has been apparent throughout his career. His comedies have lively editing, Baby Driver's chase scenes practically sprinted off the screen with such kinetic camerawork. No surprise, then, that Wright proves adept at making a horror movie that works so well at just being a hub for vibes. And not just eerie vibes too. As Eloise first makes her way into a nightclub from decades past, the director (who penned the script with Krysty Wilson-Cairns) wisely largely eschews dialogue and just lets the richly detailed flourishes of this backdrop wash over the viewer. We're as awestruck by everything as Eloise! Leaning on a sense of wonder with no glibness to undercut the atmosphere works not just for this scene, but in providing contrast for later eerie sequences.

The best spooky moments, meanwhile, tend to be the ones that lean heavily on the visual motifs of Giallo cinema and eschew realism (often simultaneously). Eloise's apartment is coated in red from a neon sign outside, which proves subtly unsettling, while a scene of Sandy making her way through a backstage area and confronting the dark underbelly of the entertainment world is lathered in a quietly disorienting green tint. In both cases, Wright uses bright colors to chillingly suggest how far Eloise and Sandy have strayed from typical reality. Such instances of hue-based frights are exquisitely handled by cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, the whole film looks great through his camerawork. 

Meanwhile, the most unnerving scene in all of Last Night in Soho concerns Eloise having a breakdown as the past proves overwhelmingly inescapable in the present. The power of this sequence comes from a willingness to just let the strange blending of two time periods play out without pausing the proceedings to explain to the viewer how or why this is happening. The best parts of the film are the ones where there's enough confidence in this story to just let it unfurl without obsessing over exposition. This also includes memorable visual flourishes that just linger in the background, like the various ways Eloise appears as a reflection of Sandy in flashback scenes. 

I'm also intrigued by how Last Night in Soho's principal characters can be seen as a reflection of the horror genre itself, with Eloise representing moviegoers living vicariously through on-screen horror movie characters as represented by Sandy. It's a tantalizing lens to view the story through that suggests how Wright is doing more than just a bog-standard horror feature.

Meanwhile, shocking no one, the two lead actors of Last Night in Soho deliver strong work in their respective roles. That's no surprise given that Thomasin McKenzie and Anya Taylor-Joy have both been on unstoppable hot streaks since they each leaped onto the radar of moviegoers in the last five years. McKenzie injects distinctive flairs into her character's socially morose demeanor while Taylor-Joy is just really good at portraying people in period pieces. Something about her aura, she just immediately conveys that she's got moxie from another era entirely. That screen presence is fun to watch on its own, but it also works at making it immediately clear why McKenzie's Eloise would be so captivated by Sandy.

Last Night in Soho does a lot right, but there are undeniably flaws here and, overall, it's probably Edgar Wright's weakest directorial effort. One key shortcoming is the third act, which decides to have Eloise play Scooby-Doo in figuring out Sandy's past. A film that's gotten a lot of mileage out of ambiance and vibes proves less engaging once characters try to uncover the meaning behind those qualities. Meanwhile, the big finale, without getting into spoilers, is messy and ends up in that frustrating place of trying to do a whole lot but failing to accomplish all that much. Then there are the darker aspects informing Sandy's experiences breaking into showbiz, which is meant as a commentary on how men treat women as objects. 

This part of the story has lofty ambitions at critiquing both blind nostalgia and normalized mistreatment of women. However, the handling of those ambitions could have used some fine-tuning since it comes off derivative of other films and ends up reducing background women to just their anguish in execution. Generic instances of fake-out jump scares and a strangely-written supporting character named John (Michael Ajao) also prove to be noticeable shortcomings Last Night in Soho. It works better visually and in subtext, than it does with surface-level storytelling details, but Last Night in Soho is an Edgar Wright movie, so it's still a polished exercise worth seeing. Just don't expect any visits from the Vegan Police in this one...

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