Last Night in Soho is vintage exploitation without the sleaze

Last Night in Soho is vintage exploitation without the sleaze

In February of this year, U.K.-based magazine Empire released a mammoth podcast in which Quentin Tarantino and Edgar Wright discussed their pandemic viewing habits at length, focusing more specifically on British genre film from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. The freewheeling discussion also included a personal list of recommendations from Martin Scorsese himself. It will surprise no one to learn that Tarantino dominated the conversation despite speaking directly into an iPad in his cavernous-sounding home, but Wright proved to be one of the few filmmakers to be able to keep up with and sometimes even match Tarantino’s constant barrage of references. 

Wright has always been a filmmaker with a clear and apparent love of cinema history, which he usually repurposed into canny genre satires. (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Baby Driver aren’t quite as indebted to upending genre conventions, but they nevertheless hinge on hyperkinetic cinematic language.) His latest, Last Night In Soho, is his most serious and least playful film yet — on its surface, an homage to the psychological strain of horror films to crop up in the late ’60s and early ’70s from filmmakers like Roman Polanski and Dario Argento. What’s unfortunate is that, however playful Wright may have been as a filmmaker, Last Night in Soho’s metatextual pleasures are all surface.

Anya Taylor-Joy and Matt Smith in Last Night in Soho

Ellie Turner (Thomasin Mckenzie) grew up in the country, raised by her grandmother after the death of her parents. She’s fascinated by ’60s fashion and culture, her ultimate dream being to move to London and study fashion. When she finally does move to Soho, she finds her fellow fashion students to be catty and standoffish, sharing no particular interests with her. She opts instead to rent a room in a bedsit from a mysterious old woman (Diana Rigg, in her last role); soon after moving in, she begins to have vivid hallucinations in which she is transported into the body of Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), an aspiring singer who finds herself entangled in unsavory affairs thanks to her lover and manager (Matt Smith). As Ellie continues to be beset by these hallucinations, she attempts to find out more about Sandie and uncovers a dark and disturbing past.

Last Night in Soho’s visuals are certainly on point. Awash in neons and primary colours, it borrows liberally from the giallo lookbook, even if the film ultimately has little to do with the style flourishes and exploitative thrills of that subset of Italian horror. Wright and cinematographer Chung Hoon-chung nail a certain type of nightmarish vision of Swinging London that, at the very least, should make the film a staple of YouTube montages and films being projected at half-attended DJ nights. These surface-level pleasures, however, hide a film that feels more or less performative in all other aspects — a carefully studied and carefully replicated style exercise that has little of the poise or perversion it needs to truly be the psychological horror film it wants to be.

Thomasin Mckenzie in Last Night in Soho

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that every horror filmmaker is necessarily a pervert or somehow doing it for entirely prurient reasons, but it certainly helps to have a little of that sprinkled in. For all of its explorations of the seamy underbelly of London nightlife in the ’60s, Last Night in Soho feels curiously sexless and airless, far removed from the elevated pulp from which it takes inspiration. I don’t doubt that Edgar Wright is doing everything for the right reasons here, but there’s something that remains decidedly juvenile about his tone that doesn’t quite translate here. It’s the dutiful work of a teacher’s pet, colouring within the lines with great technical skill but not a whole lot of soul. Despite its overt fantastical leanings, Last Night in Soho makes its way to a pretty standard and expected conclusion that trades in some pretty retrograde ideas about sex work and sex in general. While it’s true that the films Wright is taking inspiration from don’t tend to be the most forward thinking about those issues, they at least embrace the sleaze. Wright seems to be shying away from the sleaze here, which doesn’t quite gel with his adoring recreation of the style. 

Nevertheless, Last Night in Soho is hardly a complete wash. From a technical point of view, it’s absolutely impeccable, and its two young stars are better served by the material than they have been in most of their post-breakout filmic outings. But of all the filmmakers out there to make a piece of knowing sleaze, I can think of few who it would come as unnaturally to as Edgar Wright. (Certainly Wes Anderson — who coincidentally also has a film out this week.) With that in mind, Last Night in Soho is a mild success — a respectable outing by a true genre fan that nevertheless never really transcends its position as a knowing departure. ■

Last Night in Soho opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Oct. 29.

Last Night in Soho, directed by Edgar Wright

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