Last Night In Soho — A Review and Exploration
Something Wicked This Way Comes
I recently managed to see Last Night In Soho in cinemas and I felt like I had really stumbled upon something special. Now I’m not saying that memorable or thought-provoking movies are exactly hard to come by, but what truly surprised me was that I was this obsessed with how good a horror film was.
I see Horror as the last frontier of my moviegoing experience. I’d gone through my fair share of gangster flicks, fell deep into the MCU fanboy-ism, binged Netflix’s comedy catalogue and even had an art-house phase last year, but I just couldn’t buy into the idea of scaring myself for a good time. I didn’t think it was a case of just picking plain bad films. No, the problem wasn’t that I didn’t get scared, I was definitely scared, I just wasn’t having any fun while being scared.
So you can see how out of left field it was for me to even ring up the boys to go see Last Night In Soho in the first place. But I took a chance upon seeing a riveting trailer that promised a unique, stylish, cinematic and technical approach to horror that I hadn’t seen before and I just couldn’t pass up a chance to see it on the big screen.
Needless to say, it exceeded my expectations and then some, which brings me here today so that I can gush just a little more about it to the Internet and not just my friends. I’m by no means a professional film critic and my opinion is exactly that, just a personal opinion, but I’d love to share a little more about what exactly the film does well and what sets it apart from its peers in the wider world of horror and mainstream cinema.
Ellie, our protagonist, is an aspiring fashion designer obsessed with the zeitgeist of the 60s. She also regularly sees apparitions of her deceased mother and it is alluded to that Ellie has a family history of mental illness. After moving from her rural home and into a student dorm to study fashion in London, she is quickly out-casted by her peers and overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of London. She then decides to move out into a rented room in a bedsit owned by an elderly woman named Ms. Collins. There, she begins to have nightly visions of the 60s, spectating the life of a cocksure and alluring young girl named Alexandra, who goes by Sandie as she meets and falls in love with her manager, Jack and tries to make a name for herself by performing in Soho’s showbiz industry. Ellie grows fond of Sandie and eventually starts to assimilate her mannerisms, looks and even the way she dresses.
Things start to take a turn for the worse when Ellie discovers that Sandie didn’t get her big break and has instead been coerced into sleeping with Jack’s numerous male business partners. Ellie’s visions start to interfere with her daily life and relationships as well as she begins to experience increasingly vivid hallucinations of Sandie and the men that exploited her.
The movie culminates in a vision of Sandie, now actively being abused by Jack, being murdered in the very bedsit Ellie is renting, for her refusal to remain cooperative, severely traumatizing Ellie to the point where she is forced to seek help from the police. When she is turned away her hallucinations and troubled state of mind drive her into indirectly and erroneously causing the death of an old man whom she mistakenly believed to be an elderly Jack,
Now convinced that she is losing her grip on reality, Ellie attempts to leave London and the bedsit behind. It is at this juncture where Ms. Collins is revealed to be a now elderly Sandie and that it was Jack who was murdered that night by her hand, along with countless of his business associates who sought to exploit and abuse her sexually. Due to Ellie’s visit to the police, Sandie attempts to drug and kill her. In the ensuing struggle, the bedsit is set ablaze and Ellie, urged by apparitions of Jack and the other murdered men to kill Sandie, chooses instead to reconcile with her, telling her that she understands her plight and her motivations. Sandie opts to end her life, perishing in her burning boulevard of broken dreams, while Ellie, who escapes, manages to regain her stride as a fashion designer with the help of some inspiration from her shared ordeals with Sandie.
The Chocolate Sundae: Structure and Style
Now before I can dive into the nitty-gritty of what makes this such a wonderful film for me, I think its important to outline its odd genre and style so as to better frame our approach towards unpacking it. Last Night In Soho is listed officially as a blend of Horror/Drama, which implies that it is equal parts scary-monster-movie and young-girl-moves-to-big-city-movie. But that’s not quite the case considering how the horror elements are utilized. The horror elements act as catalysts to drive its drama forward. The film uses horror, but its not about horror.
As such, it’s structure resembles less of a Neapolitan ice cream with two distinct flavors in a single cone and more like a chocolate sundae. The sundae itself is the film’s drama-core about the timeless tale of youths — be it in the 60s or in the present day — and their struggle to chase their dreams and find stable footing in a harsh world. To add some flavor, dazzle and surprise to an otherwise plain and vanilla movie-sundae, horror elements, themes and film techniques act like hot fudge, cherries and sprinkles, which completes our metaphorical analogy of Last Night In Soho: a movie-sundae draped over with horror ingredients.
This definitely isn’t the only instance of such as movie structure of course. Shaun of The Dead, also directed by Edgar Wright, uses horror as a dressing for its comedic core, satirizing its audience’s fear. Get Out on the other hand, uses horror as a proxy for the very visceral fear that African-Americans face as a result of systemic racism. If anything, these instances provide a glimpse of the potential for horror to do so much more than just scare.
Alright! It took a while, but we’re finally ready to hyper-analyze the film’s triumphs. I apologize for any rambling, I’m new to all this, but I hope you didn’t skip too much up to this point, it’ll all come together at the end. Promise.
The Hot Fudge: Horror in Soho
When I finished the movie, I realized that not once throughout the course of the movie was I truly “scared” in a jump-out-of-my-seat-and-pee-my-pants kind of way. It’s not like there weren’t any jump-scares or eerie moments because there were, but its obvious that director Edgar Wright is still struggling to hit his stride with his CGI monsters.
What it lacks in frightening jump-scares however, it cleverly makes up for with two, more realistic and visceral fears that serve to create an air of tension and discomfort that’s crucial to the crux of the film’s tale. These are namely, lucid dreaming and the male gaze.
Lucid dreaming is when a dreamer becomes aware of the fact that he is in a dream. Almost all of the 60s sequences in the film are Ellie’s lucid dreams/hallucinations, in which she finds herself in the role of a spectator in Sandie’s life. She gets to watch Sandie’s dark days in showbiz unfold but at no point is she capable of changing the course of events that come to take place.
The dream sequences effect a sense of a loss of control for Ellie’s character and by extension, the audience as well. It’s not the most obvious of fears, but one that might be more common that you’d think. There’s a certain appeal to lucid dreaming, what with the prospect of being whisked away to your subconscious’ own personal fantasy-land. But lucidity is an equally terrifying, double-edged sword if you find yourself stuck in nightmare with no control over your means of escape.
This lack of control strips away Ellie’s fantasy of the swinging 60s and transforms it into a nightly prison. Imagine living an already miserable day-to-day and not even be able to gain respite in your sleep. Ellie is eventually so disturbed by her night terrors that she entertains the idea of sleeping in a bar where she works rather than have to return to the bedsit and face another night of unrest and hallucinations.
A second engine of fear in the film is the (often satirized in today’s meme culture) male gaze and how it’s depicted. Seeing as how I’m not a female and therefore, not the most obvious subject of the male gaze, this fear is something I might not be able to fully internalize, but I believe the message behind the film is clear enough that anybody, male or female can at least be made aware of such a fear’s prevalence in society.
The male gaze refers to the tendency of heterosexual men to eroticize or objectify women. This most clear-cut illustration can be seen in Jack’s exploitation of Sandie to curry favor with his business associates. At a surface level, the very nature of the performances shown at the Soho nightclub in the film involve scantily-clad women and provocative dance numbers catering to an almost exclusively male audience. Sandie is visibly uncomfortable with her role in nightclub and more so when Jack begins to pimp her out.
On a deeper level, in interactions Sandie has with her “clients”, she introduces herself with a myriad of aliases, calling herself “Alex”, “Alexi”, “Alexandra” and “Alice” among many others. Using a repeat cut of this single scene of Sandie introducing herself, we can see how her numerous “clients” always respond with the line:
“That’s a lovely name…”
That single sentence of dialogue, repeated and intonated to great effect, hints at a mix of indifference and perverse desire. It’s clear that the men don’t care what Sandie’s real name is; it simply doesn’t matter because they’re too enamored by her objective beauty and their own lust. A sentence that should by all means be a warm compliment is, in this context, cold and unfeeling, a throwaway comment that isn’t used to compliment another person but rather, fill the space before each of the men can get to what they really want, with a woman they’ve already decided to see as nothing more than an object of desire.
This very real fear that women across all time periods no doubt face in social settings is then fully manifested in the way the faceless apparitions are depicted later on in the film. The monsters lack a fixed expression or set of features, their face shifts and morphs as if the monster itself is an amalgamation of the countless men who preyed upon Sandie, their numbers so great that she can’t even remember who’s who anymore. Whereas lucid dreaming represented a fear over loss of control, Last Night In Soho’s usage of the male gaze represents a fear over loss of identity.
Throughout the dark course of Sandie’s life, she goes from being confident and unabashedly unique, to being gradually eroded away by the male gaze until even her own name isn’t something important enough to consider anymore when dealing with her clientele. She’s no longer sure of what she wants from her life, only that it was anything but what she wanted.
The Cherry On Top: Themes of Nostalgia
If lucid dreaming and the male gaze invoke a loss of control and identity respectively so as to induce an atmosphere of fear in the film, much like how fudge is slathered all over our movie-sundae, then the overall theme of nostalgia is the metaphorical cherry-on-top. It’s the first thing you go for in your sundae because it gears your taste-buds up for the rest of the treat. Similarly, nostalgia is an overarching theme of the movie that’s deconstructed early on in the film to give an opportunity for the horror and drama elements to come into the foreground. And just like how devouring a picture-perfect cherry would immediately ruin the image of a good sundae, by deconstructing nostalgia in the film, Wright can intentionally destroy the fallacious, rose-tinted illusion we have of the distant past.
Although I myself wasn’t alive during the 60s, the stunning set design (that huge Thunderball sign in front of the Café de Paris is gorgeous), and riveting soundtrack should have been more than enough for most audiences to at least buy in to the idea of the 60s. In fact, I’d argue that not having actually lived in the 60s might even work in your favor here. Ellie, like many of us, hasn’t experienced the 60s, but she’s obsessed with the idea of it. She lionizes a bygone time of London’s history fondly remembered for British Invasion Pop, miniskirts and counter-cultural movements, even going so far as to emulate Sandie’s appearance in the film because to Ellie, Sandie represents everything she yearns for from the 60s and everything she herself isn’t.
Everything in the film works towards pulling down the notion of the 60s being this time where “everything was better” by exposing the reality of how women were treated back in the day and using the dirty underbelly of the showbiz industry as a microcosm for the 60s as a whole. Every era has its own set of societal shortcomings, we just tend to forget the ugly in favor of reminiscing the good times.
Last Night In Soho not only does a splendid job reeling viewers in with the allure of nostalgia (the trailer’s first half is almost a love letter to the 60s) but creatively makes use of horror and fear of all things to subvert our expectations and provide us with a thematically rich story you might not have expected coming from a horror film.
The Chocolate Sprinkles Part 1: Mirrors as a Motif
No chocolate sundae would be complete without some bursts of flavor, which is why the following few cinematic techniques and storytelling devices act as the sprinkles in our movie-sundae. They enhance the taste of the fudge (horror elements) and cherry-on-top (the overarching theme of nostalgia) and give the film a special pizazz that makes for a true cinematic experience.
The first type of metaphorical sprinkles I’ll discuss are the mirrors that are present throughout the film and in Ellie’s dream sequences in particular. Mirrors are drawn to the viewer’s attention in one of the very first scenes of the movie, where Ellie sees and speaks to an apparition of her deceased mother, who appears in a mirror. This establishes early on that mirrors hold some sort of narrative significance to the film and beyond serving as a convenient horror trope, also acts as a symbol to represent Ellie’s psyche.
When Sandie is introduced in the film, we’re treated to a number of cinematically dazzling shots of Ellie and Sandie mirroring each other’s actions in Ellie’s dreams. Notice how, unlike Ellie’s mother, Sandie almost exclusively appears as a reflection of Ellie when in front of a mirror and not as a separate entity altogether. Ellie’s mother seems to act as a cautionary tale for Ellie. She suffered from mental illness and committed suicide when she couldn’t take the stress of London’s fashion industry. Sandie in contrast, as we have discussed above, is a representation of what Ellie could, and wants to be, so it makes sense for Ellie to see Sandie as her ideal reflection.
As mirrors start to become a recurring element in the film, it becomes part of a larger motif. In multiple instances towards the latter half of the film, as Ellie’s mental state becomes increasingly fraught and disturbed, we see mirrors being broken. Ellie herself attempts to break one in order to dissuade Sandie from staying in showbiz, Sandie cracks one in a fit of rage as she realizes her life is not turning out the way she thought it would and while witnessing Jack’s murder, Ellie inadvertently causes her date, John, to crash into a mirror.
These coincide with Ellie’s rejection of her own ideals of the 60s, Sandie’s life as well as her own miserable experience in London. In doing so, the mirror motif leads to a greater understanding of Last Night In Soho’s theme, which we’ve already identified, is one of nostalgia. Ever seen a selfie of yourself and thought that you looked a little off or different from what you expected? It’s because all your features are inverted. Slight asymmetries that could normally go unnoticed are now really obvious when your brain isn’t used to the inversion and the result is a picture that just looks plain wrong.
I think, intentionally or not, this real-world effect really highlights the film’s tear-down of nostalgia. Sandie’s world of the 60s, seen from the perspective of reflection, appears for all intents and purposes, like the 60s that Ellie adores. But like all reflections, it just looks a little off. You want to believe that Sandie lived happily ever after, but you just know that something’s not quite right and that nostalgia cannot fully hide the truth.
The Chocolate Sprinkles Part 2: The Needle Drop
Director Edgar Wright has always been well-known for his needle drops, which is where existing records or songs are used in a film instead of an original score. He usually does a more advanced form of needle drop known as mickey-mousing, where the actions of characters on-screen are timed to match the rhythm or lyrics of the song. Regrettably, as Last Night In Soho is one of his least action-oriented films, we don’t get to see how mickey-mousing could have worked in a horror context. Regardless, this missed opportunity doesn’t take away from the fact that Wright’s needle drops are still at the bare minimum, thematically consistent with the film and at its best, able to propel the film into becoming something more than just pretty shots on a screen.
To pick just one needle drop to highlight is a difficult one. I think many would focus on Anya-Taylor Joy’s hauntingly somber, yet beautiful rendition of “Downtown” by Petula Clark and rightfully so, considering how well it captures the spirit of the film, but I’d like to point out one of the minor songs used in the film just to show how every soundbite and miniscule detail in this film is so effectively utilized.
There’s a scene about halfway through the film where Ellie and John are raving at a Halloween-themed party. At this point in the movie, Ellie’s mental state is on the brink of collapse and she’s just barely keeping a hold of herself when she starts to hallucinate again. All the while, “Happy House” by Siouxsie and the Banshees is being blasted in the background of the party.
“Happy House” was a little before my time, so I’ll confess that I recognized the song instantaneously because it was heavily sampled by The Weeknd (who needs no introduction), in his breakout hit “House of Balloons”, with some of its iconic lyrics listed below:
Oh, this is a happy house
We’re happy here
In this happy house
Oh this is fun, fun, fun, fun
Fun, fun, fun, fun
Fun, fun, fun, fun
If it hurts to breathe, open a window
Oh, your mind wants to leave, but you can’t go.
Oh, this is a happy house
We’re happy here
In this happy house
Oh this is fun, fun, fun, fun
Fun, fun, fun, fun
Fun, fun, fun, fun
Both songs attempt to convey a sensation of desperation, of wanting to believe that you’re having a good time when you’re really just stuck in a rotten situation. Sound familiar? Go have a listen for yourself and you’ll see, it’s almost too thematically compatible to believe.
Last Night In Soho is filled to the brim with little nuggets of cinematic brilliance like this one. Sure, not everyone’s gonna get the larger context of the song and how it relates to the movie, but for the odd few who do, it’s a great “ah-ha!” moment that doubles the potency of a well-timed needle drop.
The Chocolate Sprinkles Part 3: Visual Storytelling
Lastly, the review wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the masterful camerawork and visual effects of the film crew.
In many of the film’s cinematic sequences, Wright uses a combination of techniques to disorientate us visually and aurally. This kind of sensory overload is something I first saw perfected in another brilliant movie, Uncut Gems.
The Safdie Brothers, who directed Uncut Gems, would have multiple characters squished together on a tiny set to make sure all space on the screen was always filled up. Characters with aggressive and loud dialogue would be talking over each other and arguing while new elements of discord and conflict would be continually introduced to the scene to further elevate tension. Many have said that it’s one of most anxiety-filled movies ever made and I think it’s largely due to this aural cacophony created by the directors.
Last Night In Soho does something similar. It’s not quite as effective as Uncut Gems, but still effective nonetheless. Where Uncut Gems seeks to overwhelm aurally, Last Night In Soho strives for a more balanced, visual/aural chaos. Wright included shots with bokeh-like effects and sometimes even fisheye-like warping combined with fast, blurry cuts from scene to scene to visually communicate the trepidation and panic of Ellie and Sandie’s escape from Jack.
Texas switches can be found aplenty as well, which is where two actors seamlessly switch places off camera to give off an illusion of doubling and substitution. Scenes like the one where Jack appears to be arguing with Ellie in one shot, and Sandie in the very next are a prime example. With the constant baiting and switching, the distinction between the two characters, at least in Ellie’s head becomes less and less clear and we — the audience — also become less and less aware of who’s perspective it is that we’re watching anymore, or if it even matters because the two characters have already thematically melded into one.
A combination of loud, blaring music, distorted whispers of creepy men telling you that you have a lovely name and the iconic, neon-red lights that saturate Ellie’s hallucinations are yet another set of cinematographic tools that Wright uses to scream out the words “Danger” and “Tension” without having a character say so outright.
All in all, Last Night In Soho is both visually and aurally mesmerizing because it makes full use of the medium of film to complement its already ambitious blend of genres and thematically-challenging plot.
Box Office Blues and the Struggle for Originality
As I sat watching the advertisements for other soon-to-be-released blockbusters before the start of Last Night In Soho, I was given a glimpse of the current state of Hollywood that’s been coming under fire from the likes of Martin Scorsese, Anthony Mackie and the media at large.
We’ve all heard it before, the complaint that modern movies are either:
A) An uninspiring and bland genre film that’s formulaic and written for mass appeal, think something along the lines of 6 Underground.
B) Sequels or installments in cinematic universes too big and too unfocused for their own good and that no one asked for. Did anyone really wake up and think, I really want to see Godzilla vs Kong?
C) Reboots that tarnish beloved franchises in return for cheap profit. How many times do we have to reboot Terminator and Aliens before we can move on?
See, it’s one thing to criticize the mundanity of the status quo, but it’s another to actually come out to support original IPs when they actually come along once in a while. I remember when Tenet was slated to finally be released in theaters after months of delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was heralded as not only signifying a return of films and big screen entertainment to the general public after months of isolation, but more saliently, Tenet was supposed to be a shining beacon of hope for original IPs to return to the forefront of Hollywood. If a triple-A original film with a huge budget, world-class cast and a visionary director in Christopher Nolan can revive the film industry in the midst of a global pandemic, then surely anyone would be able to see that original films are just as financially viable and cinematically enjoyable as any other reboot or sequel that the big distributors push out every quarter anyways right?
Needless to say, it all went terribly wrong. Tenet is estimated to have lost upwards of $100 million at the box office and was received with lukewarm reviews.
Which brings us back to Last Night In Soho. At the time of writing this article, Last In Soho is officially a box-office flop. Despite garnering some decent reviews and attention from the media, it just hasn’t managed to pull in larger audiences to recoup its budget.
I am of course, deeply frustrated by this. Was it a perfect film? No, it wasn’t. The middle dragged on for much too long, I found John to be way too convenient of a character to have, the horror wasn’t that scary either. The bottom line is this, the film isn’t perfect and has it’s flaws, but at the same time it dares to try a different approach to a genre that’s become trite and over-saturated with nuns and Conjurings. It’s innovative and filled to the brim with details. It’s brilliantly acted, boasts impressive camerawork and most of all, it’s not a franchise, reboot or sequel, it’s entirely original cinema.
I wanted Last Night In Soho to succeed, and in my view, it deserves and should succeed, if only to encourage more movies like it to be made. And hey, I’m probably gonna go see Spider-Man: No Way Home this December too, just like every single person who’s ever not lived under a rock. I’m not against it’s place as a sequel (or as an MCU film or as a member of a long line of Spider-Man reboots that never seem to go away) per se. I’m for good movies, and I hope in a paradigm that’s severely lacking in shows like Last Night In Soho, that we, as fans of movies can do our part as well to make sure these great films continue to get made.