Edgar Wright’s (“Baby Driver”) “Last Night in Soho” opens on a young woman as she dances around her room to Peter and Gordon’s “A World Without Love.” She wears a dress she made out of newspapers, and I, as a viewer, am immediately invested. She is Eloise Turner (Thomasin McKenzie, “Jojo Rabbit”), an aspiring fashion designer, and in this opening scene, she has perhaps the most fun I have ever seen an actor have in a horror movie. Maybe I’m biased as someone with my own dreams of designing clothes, but I cared deeply about Ellie from the moment I saw her.
“Last Night in Soho” has an unexpected amount of care for its characters. This is only the first of several ways it differs — for the better — from most horror films. For the first half-hour, nothing especially scary happens. Ellie is accepted into the University of the Arts London (I was living vicariously through her when she got the letter) and moves to the city. Ellie soon gets her own room in a building owned by an older landlady, Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg, “Game of Thrones”). To keep the audience on edge, there are hints that the story is not going to remain so lighthearted. Ellie sometimes sees her mother (Aimee Cassettari, “Doctors”) in mirrors, even though she died when Ellie was seven. Her first cab driver in London hits on her and jokes that he will stalk her. Most notably, she starts having dreams about a lounge singer named Sandy (Anya Taylor-Joy, “Emma”), who lived in Ellie’s room in the 1960s.
Even when things start to go wrong and the film becomes darker, it remains fun. A combination of vibrant cinematography, a character we already love and a truly great ’60s-themed soundtrack keeps everything buoyant. In other words, the movie’s vibes are too immaculate to be ruined by any amount of murder and revenge. Films that prey on our fears are often combined with sadness and unrelenting tension, which leaves the viewer depressed or at least a bit down. But I was invigorated watching this film, but not because it lacked horror — the friend I brought for moral support screamed several times in the theater and by the time the lights came on we had both slid far down in our chairs.
Rather, the film is scary because this character we love discovers that pursuing one’s dream can have devastating consequences. We see how twisted the world can be, especially for women, and that reality is terrifying. This fear is strongest toward the beginning of the film; Ellie watches Sandy lose her passion for singing as her dream is taken away. The men who mistreat Sandy start haunting Ellie in dreams and then even in her waking hours. She simultaneously becomes desperate to help Sandy and afraid of pursuing her own dream.
The main character and initial premise of dreams gone awry are what make this film unique, and it is strongest when these aspects are at the forefront. There is a point when the film turns away from Ellie’s story and toward something more “Promising Young Woman”-esque as Sandy seeks vengeance against the men who wronged her. While the mystery of what happened to Sandy is intriguing, Ellie’s story was what initially invested the viewer, so the film falters when this storyline is neglected. The inspiration Ellie gets from Sandy for her fashion designs juxtaposed against the darker side of Sandy’s success makes for a compelling narrative. The ending does return to Ellie’s career, which feels appropriate, but it’s not as satisfying as it could have been. Since Ellie’s story was temporarily forgotten, bringing it back feels more like a cheap way to wrap up the movie than a structured and earned ending.
That said, the ending by no means ruins the movie. While the second half is not as strong as the first, “Last Night in Soho” is an enjoyable experience in its entirety. It makes up for its shortcomings with the life it brings to the screen and captivates on story, character, music and cinematographic levels. The lovable main character and soundtrack — which I looked up immediately after the movie — are breaths of fresh air. The film proves that horror does not need to rely on bleak colors and sad violin music, and it will be joining the sparse ranks of horror movies I will excitedly return to.
Daily Arts Writer Erin Evans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.