Anya Taylor-Joy stars in this terrifying box-office flop that nevertheless demands to be appreciated in all its style on streaming.
There is always something tense in an Anya Taylor-Joy performance. From her breakout role as a 17th-century Puritan desperately trying to ward off the forces of evil in Robert Eggers’ The Witch to her turn as a depressive, substance-abusing chess prodigy in The Queen’s Gambit, Anya Taylor-Joy always seems caught struggling with some invisible power that she can barely hold at bay. Nowhere is that as clear as in the 2021 Edgar Wright film Last Night in Soho, a terrifying journey through nostalgia and nightmares that unfortunately flopped at the box office. Fortunately, as of right now, it is streaming on HBO Max and is ready to get its due as one of the most accomplished and stylish horror movies in years.
Anya Taylor-Joy stars in Last Night in Soho as Sandie, a hopeful young singer in 1960s Swinging London. In the film, she radiates beauty, style, and charisma to a blinding degree; her star power is to maximum, and yet she is not actually the star of the film, in a way. Last Night in Soho actually begins with Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie), a shy young fashion student newly arrived in London. The movie takes its time getting to Anya Taylor-Joy. First, we see Thomasin McKenzie at her Cornwall home dancing to a vintage Peter & Gordon song in a quirky homemade dress and witness her vision of a woman watching her from a mirror. It becomes swiftly apparent that McKenzie has been raised by her grandmother (Rita Tushingham, the first of several 1960s film icons to appear) after the suicide of her mother. It also becomes clear that she is lying to her grandmother about seeing visions of her mother, fearing them as a sign of the mental illness that her mother suffered from.
From the bucolic English countryside, the film brings us to London, where Thomasin McKenzie is swiftly bullied by her pretentious roommate Jocasta (Synnøve Karlsen) and her cadre of mean girls until she desperately moves to a bedsit run by a Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg in her steely final performance). That is when the hook of Last Night in Soho really kicks in: McKenzie begins experiencing immersive fantasies of 1960s London, following Anya Taylor-Joy as she gutsily tries to break into show business. Given that this is a horror movie, you can expect that things do not go well.
Edgar Wright is known as a director who packs maximum information on screen at all times, from the exquisitely curated soundtrack of 1960s hits to the dazzling visualization of the double life of Anya Taylor-Joy and Thomasin McKenzie to the eventual chilling, faceless ghosts that begin to pursue McKenzie. As the visions of Anya Taylor-Joy’s fall into the seamy underworld of Soho grow darker and darker, McKenzie becomes increasingly unhinged in her own life, uncertain of which reality she might find herself at any moment. Once she has a vision of the terrifying, violent murder of Anya Taylor-Joy by her alternately suave and horrifying pimp Matt Smith, she becomes convinced that a creepy silver-haired barfly (Terence Stamp, rounding out the film icon trifecta) and starts her own investigation.
Last Night in Soho is an absolutely gorgeous film on every level, and none of those levels are to be entirely trusted. Anya Taylor-Joy is heartbreakingly stunning in a platinum blonde bouffant and a series of gorgeous gowns; that only makes it all the more bloodcurdling and McKenzie the more desperate to try to save this woman from the past. The images of Thomasin McKenzie watching Anya Taylor-Joy through mirrors as she dances and struts through nightclubs were acclaimed for their seamless practical effects, but the CGI imagery of faceless, gray men stalking both of the stars of the film are equally as impressive.
Despite the undeniable star power of both Anya Taylor-Joy and Thomasin McKenzie, Last Night in Soho bombed at the box office. It barely pulled in $23 million at the box office off a $43 million budget, becoming Edgar Wright’s lowest-performing wide-release film. Critics were somewhat kinder to it, with many viewing it rightly as an homage to the Italian giallo subgenre of horror film, which often focuses on female sexuality, unexpected killers, a supernatural element, and gory, gory violence. But Last Night in Soho is also a meditation on the allure and falseness of nostalgia. The journeys of Anya Taylor-Joy and Thomasin McKenzie in the film are twins of one another, both commenting on the other through the gulf of time. Even if it failed at the box office, it deserves a look now.