TORONTO — Welcome to the Stabbing Sixties!
Director Edgar Wright’s latest crazy horror-comedy, “Last Night in Soho,” whisks us to London during the freewheeling decade of The Beatles and Petula Clark, and in so doing delivers Wright’s most sophisticated film so far.
Lest you think the “Shaun of the Dead” helmer has gone artsy-fartsy on us, however, “Soho,” which had its North American premiere Friday at the Toronto International Film Festival, is also the best high-camp scary flick since “Black Swan.”
The demure ingénue, Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie), actually has a lot in common with the whack-job ballerina that won Natalie Portman her first Oscar back in 2011. (No, creeps, she does not make out with Mila Kunis.)
In the present day, naive Ellie moves from rural Cornwall, England, to the big city to attend fashion school, and her new life instantly sucks.
After she tells her rotten flatmate Jocasta (Synnove Karlsen) where she hails from, Jocasta mutters, “Sorry?”
“Cornwall,” replies Ellie. “It’s in the countryside.”
“No, babes, I mean I’m sorry.”
Fed up, Ellie packs her things and relocates to a dingy upstairs flat on Goodge Street in Soho, owned by a blunt old woman named Alexandra. The mean landlady is the last role the late, great Diana Rigg ever played — and it’s a meal of a part that brings to mind Wright’s “Hot Fuzz.”
Then something magical happens. Ellie goes to sleep that night and wakes up in front of the glittering Coventry Street nightclub Café de Paris. A dream, perhaps? The cars are retro, the clothes are vintage, there’s a billboard for Sean Connery’s “Thunderball,” and she is now a totally different person. Ellie glances in a mirror and instead sees sexy Sandy (Anya Taylor-Joy) dressed in a pink number that Halston might’ve designed.
Similar to the start of “Being John Malkovich,” Ellie experiences the world as Sandy, an aspiring singer, but still remains herself and can’t control what’s going on.
On this night, Sandy gets involved with Jack (Matt Smith, puttin’ on the smarm), an agent she hopes will represent her — a choice she’ll come to regret.
Ellie wakes up, convinced what happened was real, and is back in her unremarkable room and miserable existence. So, she becomes gradually more obsessed with her time-traveling Narnia, and it swallows up her life: She changes her hair to blond, she starts dressing like Sandy and talking like her. The girl hurries to bed each night like a kid on Christmas Eve.
Suddenly, “Last Night in Soho” becomes a horror film.
What a pleasure it has been to watch Wright’s career go from low-budget “Shaun of the Dead” to a lush, sophisticated film like this one while never losing sight of his peculiar wit and weirdness.
Wright is also a master trickster. Even coming into the film fully knowing it’s horror, you become convinced early on that it’s actually a warm, escapist ode to another time, like “Midnight in Paris.” Soon you see, though, that for every glass of Beaujolais drank in Woody Allen’s movie, a barrel of blood is spilled here.
Ellie and Sandy’s lives both spiral dangerously out of control, and McKenzie and Taylor-Joy render their descents agonizing, demented and frightening. Taylor-Joy particularly is like a creature sent here from a different era. As she dances to the fantastic sixties soundtrack and swans around London, you can’t believe she’s real.
Through the women’s pain, social issues are touched upon that give the bloodshed a more complex hue.
Wright paces his movie well, too. Just when you’ve had enough of something, or someone, a new energy comes bursting in. The film about a bewitched flat never gets flat.
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