A trip to the dark heart of London’s unswinging 60s is what’s on offer in this entertaining, if uneven, film from screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns and director Edgar Wright, serving up a gorgeous soundtrack and some marvellous re-creations of sleazy Soho and the West End. There’s a tremendous image of the marquee for the 1965 Thunderball premiere in Coventry Street, and a show-stopping crane shot of Soho Square, apparently filmed from where the 20th Century Fox sign is now no longer to be found atop that company’s former premises.
Last Night in Soho is a doppelganger horror-thriller about a wide-eyed fashion student called Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) who has brought her mum’s old Dansette record player and Cilla Black and Petula Clark LPs up to London from Cornwall on the train. Eloise has a fetish for the lost innocent glamour of the 60s but, moping all alone in her manky bedsit, finds herself stricken with nightly neon phantasms. Like a ghost from the future, Eloise dreams her way through a portal in time back into 60s London clubland, where she witnesses Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), a blonde singer – exactly the kind of retro showbiz princess Eloise moonily idolises – who is being forced by her slick-haired manager Jack (Matt Smith) into having sex for money with creepy old men. Gradually, Eloise feels her identity merging with Sandie’s. Is she having a breakdown, or is this nightmare really happening?
Wright’s re-creation of that bygone half of the film is hypnotic: interestingly, Eloise’s bedsit is not in Soho, but just to the north in Fitzrovia; maybe for the Peeping Tom vibes, this being where Michael Powell’s classic 1960 London shocker was set. Eloise has a grumpy old landlady played with gusto by the late Diana Rigg, and there are other instances of 60s ancestor-worship casting, including ruined 60s cherub Terence Stamp as a mysterious old guy who hangs about by the pub.
There are no cliched celeb cameos – no Francis Bacon in the Colony Room or Jimi Hendrix at the Bag O’Nails – and I like the way Wright does not romanticise or glamorise Soho: he shows us that this is a place of misogynistic nastiness. There is a grippingly squalid sequence in which Sandie is humiliatingly forced to participate as a chorus girl, performing Puppet on a String in a cringe-making saucy revue that is basically a prostitution shop-window for leering male punters in the audience, who are expecting Jack to set up a personal introduction. It’s a clever echo of the Christine Keeler revue scenes in Michael Caton-Jones’s Scandal from 1989.
But the contemporary half of the film is for me less interesting, particularly in the overextended third act. It is almost as if the movie has used up all its horrified rapture on those vivid 1960s hallucinations, and it sometimes isn’t as scary as it could be. McKenzie does a lot of pop-eyed staring and sitting bolt upright in bed as she wakes up from another actually-happening bad dream, and there is a slightly laborious stretch where she is somehow able to research 60s Soho crime from microfiche newspaper records in her college library. In these book-lined stacks she suffers one of many ghost incursions. Taylor-Joy’s Sandie is opaque, but in the right way: the sacrificial fetish in a vortex of fear.
None of this stops the Soho of the film from being re-created with great exuberance, a Valhalla of toxic glitz, whose world Wright directs with great style.
• Last Night in Soho is released on 29 October in cinemas.