Last Night in
Matt Rogerson asks: Is Edgar Wright’s surreal psych-horror Last Night in Soho a love letter to Swinging Sixties’ London or a celebration of the giallo? This article contains spoilers for the film Last Night in Soho.
Edgar Wright loves film. Moreso, he understands film, something that comes across in every genre he tackles. From his zom-rom-com Shaun of the Dead (which now sits proudly within the canon of the zombie subgenre) to comic action film Hot Fuzz and living cartoon Scott Pilgrim vs The World, Wright’s deference to genre history is ever present in his work. With Last Night in Soho, Wright might have matured from a Tarantino-like curator of genre film tropes and stylistic nods to a director who can fully dissect what makes genre film great without needing to insert the nods and winks to the audience that often marks the works of Tarantino, Rob Zombie and Eli Roth (and, up until recently, Wright himself).
I went into Last Night in Soho having read Mark Kermode’s description of the film as a ‘giallo-esque slasher fantasy… (that) dances through streets paved not with gold but with glitter, grit and splashes of stabby gore.’ As a giallo obsessive I am very protective of my prized Italian genre film and its various filones, so such a description feels almost like a challenge to me. Thus, I went to the cinema a little cynical and pre-judgmental of the film’s validity as a neo-giallo.
As soon as the opening credits rolled, I was transfixed. As it turns out, Last Night in Soho is not just the most satisfying horror I have seen in recent years, it is an incredibly immersive experience, a surrealist rollercoaster that just picks up the audience and drags us into its wild ride through 1960s Soho and Fitzrovia. 116 minutes absolutely flew by and I left the cinema overwhelmed and hypervigilant, as a part of me remained trapped within Wright’s vibrant poetry of colour, music and madness.
Ostensibly the film is a surreal, supernatural thriller, as Thomasin McKenzie’s fashion design student Ellie plunges into the mystery of Anya Taylor-Joy’s ingénue-turned-prostitute Sandy and her descent into disappointment, despair and apparent death. The film’s central conceit is that the events of Sandy’s life took place in the 1960s, fifty-something years before Ellie arrives in London. Wright crafts a psychodrama around the apparent supernatural link between Ellie and Sandy that fuels Ellie’s visions/hallucinations/hysteria and her desire to ‘solve’ the mystery of what became of Sandy. The film’s narrative takes its time, building from gaudy melodrama to the kind of full on surrealist horror that evokes the likes of Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento.
So what of Last Night in Soho’s giallo chops? The film is bloody, bold and beautiful, redolent of Mario Bava’s seminal Blood & Black Lace as it centres on the high fashion and party atmosphere of the 1960s in a whirlwind of primary colour and music. It takes a little while to turn bloody, but when the claret does finally flow, it is a bright, brazen, deep red that looks every bit as hyperreal as the crimson found in Argento’s Profondo Rosso or Luciano Ercoli’s Death Walks on High Heels. It is Last Night in Soho’s adherence to what Hutchings (cited by Mendik) called ‘countercultural aesthetics’, a particularly vibrant style that elevates the giallo (and, indeed, Last Night in Soho) from what some might consider trash to be valorised as cult cinema.
Wright’s film is a mystery thriller of sorts but has a definite supernatural bent. While this might alienate giallo purists, fans of the wider, weirder filones will recognize the woman in trouble trope, the spiralling madness and supernatural suggestion of the likes of Francisco Barilli’s The Perfume of the Woman in Black and Lucio Fulci’s Woman in a Lizard’s Skin and The Psychic. Essentially, both Sandy and Ellie represent what Xavier Mendik coined ‘Bodies of Desire and Bodies in Distress’ in his book examining the social, political and cultural influences on the giallo. Ellie’s descent into madness features mannequin-like wraiths that conjure up memories of Umberto Lenzi’s perplexing Spasmo and Luigi Bazzoni’s wonderfully haunting Footprints on the Moon. Like the women of these weird, wonderful gialli, Wright’s protagonist is somewhat passive for much of the film. As Sandy’s arc is redolent of Nieves Navarro’s character in Death Walks on High Heels (an alluring ingénue who is murdered at the hands of a man she thought she could trust), Ellie kind of stumbles through a plot that essentially happens to her much as it happens to us (redolent of the tragic journey of Mimsy Farmer in Perfume of the Woman in Black), sending her on terrifying trips through surreal corridors that, if you replaced Thomasin McKenzie with Florinda Bolkan, offer a funhouse mirror reflection of scenes from Lizard in a Woman’s Skin.
As Last Night in Soho’s plot unfurls, it introduces another giallo staple, but a much less welcome one: misogynistic violence. The gialli were very much films of their time and place, but any conversation around them has to take in the sheer amount of apparently celebrated male-on-female violence in films such as Sergio Martino’s proto-slasher Torso, Fulci’s video nasty The New York Ripper and Massimo Dallamano’s schoolgirls in peril masterpiece What Have You Done to Solange? This cinematic trope is considered disconcerting even among celebrated directors of mainstream horror, with John Carpenter (cited by Gosling, and speaking of Dario Argento’s gialli template) suggested ‘couples violent death with sexual beauty, and that’s extremely disturbing to me.’
The case is very much the same in Wright’s film, which not only seems to delight in the suffering of Taylor-Joy’s Sandy but (and spoilers lie immediately ahead) in its final act twist, Sandy is revealed to be both murderer and martyr, having dispatched the many male predators who used her for sex and, in doing so, is revealed as the film’s ultimate antagonist. This twist is not entirely satisfying, as the ‘victims’ are vile men the viewer should have no sympathy for, but the tormented and sympathetic Sandy goes far beyond protecting herself in attacking fashion student Elie in the final act and becomes an actual villain. There is no real resolution here, no feeling of satisfaction that the mystery is solved and justice served. Instead, the ending is a touch nihilistic, once again providing reflections of certain gialli: the downbeat anti-resolutions of Fulci’s Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, The Psychic and The New York Ripper come to mind as the credits begin to roll.
Despite the misogynistic content, Wright’s film is an immersive and genuinely disturbing psychosexual horror with an aesthetic that sits well alongside Mario Bava and Dario Argento’s works and a narrative that conjures up deeper material from elsewhere in giallo’s many filones. The layered way in which the aesthetics and tropes of a diverse cross-section of gialli are presented shows a director that doesn’t just love film, but understands it. In this case, Wright has directed an impressive genre piece that shows the depth of his knowledge of film language without all the nods and winks of certain other, celebrated directors of ‘original’ genre film. For its superb aesthetic and style, the film will no doubt appeal to Dario Argento and Mario Bava connoisseurs, but it is those fans of giallo’s fringes, of the surreal thrillers of Francisco Barilli’s Perfume of the Lady in Black, Luigi Bazzoni’s Footprints on the Moon and Fulci’s Lizard in a Woman’s Skin that will find lots to enjoy in Last Night in Soho.
 Kermode, M (2021) Last Night in Soho review – a deliciously twisted journey back to London’s swinging past [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2021/oct/31/last-night-in-soho-edgar-wright-review [Accessed 31 October 2021]
 Mendik, X (2015) Bodies of Desire and Bodies in Distress. 1st ed. Cambridge Scholars Publishing: Newcastle Upon Tyne.
 Gosling, E (2016) The original scream queens who gave giallo its feminist edge [online] Available at: https://lwlies.com/articles/feminism-in-giallo-cinema/ [Accessed 10 November 2021]
More To Explore
Lawrence Fowler’s upcoming film, The Ghost Within, is described as a ghost story set in the English countryside…
Horror in the Britcom looks at where comedy meets terror, finding the ghoulish in the hilarious…