CALLERI: Three British acting legends light up ‘Last Night In Soho’

Anya Taylor-Joy stars as Sandie and Matt Smith as Jack in Edgar Wright’s 'Last Night in Soho', a Focus Features release. (Parisa Taghizadeh / Focus Features)

And suddenly, there they were. Three of the most iconic stars of British film and television from sixty years ago were on the theater screen in front of me.

They are starring in “Last Night In Soho,” a movie set not only in today’s London, but also in the celebrated “Swinging London” of the 1960s

During the course of the early part of the movie, Rita Tushingham, now 79, arrives as the central character Eloise’s grandmother. Tushingham’s “A Taste Of Honey,” from 1961, made her a star.

Then it’s Diana Rigg’s turn. You know her especially as Emma Peel in the original TV series of “The Avengers.” Fifty-one episodes from 1965 to 1968. She died at age 82 in September 2020, shortly after completing “Last Night In Soho.” The film is dedicated to her. Rigg plays Eloise’s landlady.

Last, but certainly not least, Terence Stamp is on-screen. He’s now 83. A riveting blast of acting energy got him noticed. It began with “Billy Budd” (1962), which was followed quickly by “The Collector” (1965), “Modesty Blaise” (1966), “Far From The Madding Crowd” (1967), and “Teorema” (1968). Stamp continues to be an international cinema icon. He plays a mysterious silver-haired gentleman.

I had lunch once with Stamp in 1993 in Atlanta, Georgia. Just him and me. It was pure chance. I was on the movie junket for the crime caper film, “The Real McCoy.” I had interviewed him one-on-one in the morning and went to the restaurant for lunch in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, which is in the Buckhead neighborhood and is where the stars of the movie and the press were staying.

I was in line waiting to be greeted by the maitre d’. Stamp was in front of me. He turned, saw me, and said hello. I returned the greeting, and he asked if I would like to join him for lunch. I said yes. It was a couple of hours of good food and good camaraderie. We talked about him growing up in the East End of London, me in Buffalo-Niagara, our families, favorite foods, literature, and, of course, movies. And yes, he had been to Niagara Falls. So many stars have spent a vacation at this waterborne wonder of the world.

“Last Night In Soho” is something special. Director Edgar Wright and his co-screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns have made a horror movie that is spectacularly original. While you were watching old favorite fright films over the Halloween weekend, you probably should have been in a theater watching “…Soho.”

Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) is a contemporary young woman whose passion is to design clothing. She heads for fashion school in London from her small English town. Eloise is obsessed with the 1960s. Swinging London. Carnaby Street. Mary Quant’s dresses. The scintillating era of the rise of British rock and roll.

Eloise (she prefers Ellie) is filled with confidence, but we notice something else quickly. She seems not quite in control of her psychological self. We let that pass. We assume she’s just nervous, a country mouse meeting city mice. Her grandmother is always in her ear via their mobile phones. We wonder if her late mother’s spirit is protecting her.

Problems arise when Eloise’s snide female roommate sneers at her. When Ellie goes out with the roomie and her equally snotty girlfriends, she realizes the arrangement won’t work. She may have to share classes with them, but she can move out of the dorm. Which she does. We begin to notice the toughness that we’ll see throughout the rest of the film. Ellie becomes close to a male friend named John (Michael Ajao), also a design student.

Her wise landlady (Alexandra played by Rigg) isn’t a sourpuss, but she does warn Ellie about her behavior, especially regarding men not being allowed in her room, which is quite a lovely space. Alexandra does enjoy the ‘60s music Ellie plays, especially Peter & Gordon’s “World Without Love,” Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” and Dusty Springfield’s “Wishin’ And Hopin.’” What are her secrets?

Things seem fine as Ellie settles into her routine, taking her classes, even getting a job as a bartender in a pub in the popular Soho neighborhood where the film takes place, an area filled with restaurants, comedy clubs, and small theaters. It’s there she’ll meet the rough-looking Lindsay (acted by Stamp), an elderly man with his own interesting past to be sure.

The reverie is soon shattered as “Last Night In Soho” becomes much more than a story about a girl who can design dresses. What seems normal becomes a House Of Mirrors. Has a drink been spiked? Is Ellie’s fragile nature falling apart? Is she merely having nightmares? Or is there a dangerous spirit of the dead in her new room?

James Bond’s “Thunderball” suddenly appears on a movie theater marquee. A classic Teddy Boy with an agenda (Matt Smith) seems to control a woman named Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy) who sings in men’s clubs as these havens become something deeply rotten.

Why has Ellie traveled back in time, and why is her fantasy world less inviting than what was in her dreams? Throughout the second half of the film, with tension rising, she flips back and forth between the old and the new. Nothing is as it seems. The movie’s mood darkens. And gets darker.

All hell breaks loose. Demons from the past haunt her imagination. Terror rises. Knives slash. Blood flows. Madness reaches a crescendo. With more to come.

“Last Night In Soho” is superbly acted by all. Its look is flawless. Wright has created a densely packed exercise in horror. And it’s terrific. Go see the film to discover why.

Michael Calleri reviews films for the Niagara Gazette and the CNHI news network. Contact him at moviecolumn@gmail.com.

 

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