“No Finer Place for Sure”: Looking Beyond the Spotlight in Last Night in Soho (2021)

Spoilers ahead

When standing under a spotlight, you can only see what is directly in front of you, but the audience can see everything about you. There is a disparity in that, but also isolation. Cut off, blind, performing to a person you cannot distinguish. There is a scene in Last Night in Soho where that exact dynamic presents itself, although, like the woman under the spotlight, we cannot see the depth of that blindness until much later. It begins as Sandie walks onto a bare stage, the curtains drawing back behind her, like we are following her. She raises her hand and begins to sing without accompaniment: “When you’re alone, and life is making you lonely, you can always go, downtown”. There are two men watching her, one looking to the other, and then smiling. Sandie doesn’t notice. There is another figure too- one who no one can see- a young woman named Eloise. She is fascinated by Sandie, her ability to make a silent room feel full all on her own. Sandie continues, singing, “No finer place for sure, downtown. Everything’s waiting for you”, bringing the note higher than originally sung. This glare prevents Sandie from seeing what is actually happening in the scene, what her audition will lead to, what she is unknowingly agreeing to. Neither does Eloise, this silent figure, implying that there is broader spotlight headlining both women. They may be decades apart, but something horrific binds them until they eventually realize just what stands on the other side of the stage. While a spotlight can conceal grime, such grime is always there.

Last Night in Soho is a truly remarkable film, which establishes itself as an opus to 1960s cinema before severely critique that era, and ours, for its fetishized and abusive male gaze. The film’s greatest horror is faceless, meaning that it belongs in the ‘60s, but also in ours. This horror has no identity and is only defined by a brutal need to control and suffocate women, slowing tearing their identity apart, driving them insane. The film uses this horror to suggest that nostalgia is an incredibly dangerous form of erasure and possession. Nostalgia tells us that the past is gone, that it is only some distant image we can mirror and distort. It tells us the closest we can get to the past is buying a vintage dress, or wearing vintage inspired makeup, reading something from that era. But as Last Night in Soho argues, there is no real need to return to the past when it is already lunging towards us. It never really went anywhere, and it still holds consequences. The film thus asks: is the violent gaze of that era truly gone, and if not, how can we move forward? More specifically, how do we appreciate elements from these eras while also recognizing the trauma they come with? What do we do when something we love, or remember a certain way, is revealed in a fuller light?

“They’re not just dreams. It really happened.”

Eloise is a young fashion student, obsessed with the ‘60s. She listens to old records, which form the film’s soundtrack, and uses the ‘60s as inspiration for her designs. The film begins as Eloise travels to London for school, still haunted by her Mother, who also traveled to London to study, but did not survive the experience. Eloise has trouble fitting in with the high-end group at University, and so she decides to rent an old flat run by a Ms. Collins. Eloise is also hypersensitive to ghosts, seeing her Mother at the beginning of the film, and London intensifies this ability. She begins dreaming about this glamourous woman named Sandie, who lived in her flat during the ‘60s. These dreams are spectacular at first, romantic even, as Sandie meets a charming man named Jack who promises to help her with her singing career. Things turn horrific when Jack begins pimping Sandie to club members, and both she and Eloise begin to see the trauma underlying this alluring world. Eloise becomes increasingly desperate to save Sandie, although no one in the dreams acknowledges that she is there. That doesn’t stop the dreams from bleeding into her world, as these terrifying men begin stalking Eloise when she is awake. These men have no faces, just the shape of a mouth pressing against their skin. Eloise continues to lose her identity and blend with Sandie, who she believes was viciously murdered by Jack.

The film builds into this frightening climax where it’s revealed that Sandie never died. Eloise was actually picking up on the ghosts of Sandie’s victims, the men who tried to brutalize and take advantage of her, and who are now buried underneath the floorboards of Eloise’s rented flat. After Jack tried to murder her, Sandie became a serial killer, targeting the horrible men who destroyed her (and others) life and career. Eloise realizes this only to have Ms. Collins/Sandie try to murder her and John, a potential boyfriend from school. Sandie stops chasing Eloise after she opens the door to her old flat and sees the ghosts, or at least recognizes something horrific about this room. Sandie realizes that while she regrets nothing, and was completely justified in what she did, that doesn’t give her the right to kill Eloise, another woman who is just trying help and start her career. Eloise , in turn, refuses to kill Sandy, like the ghosts want her to, and instead sympathizes with her. Sandy eventually kills herself by staying in the bedroom while the house burns down, a fire that was notably started in her old record collection, the very reason she wanted to be a singer. Eloise goes on to a successful first runway inspired by Sandie, but made more modern, more Eloise.

“I can see people, places. Things others can’t.”

The film marks director Edgar Wright’s first official horror venture, although his earlier films have included horror elements, notably Shaun of the Dead (2004). It’s also the first of his films to feature a female protagonist, which is especially noteworthy, as the film is interested in deconstructing the ‘so-called’ nostalgic male gaze which certain contemporary directors continue to rely on. Horror is the perfect vehicle for social and political commentary, as what we are afraid of is often more instinctive and indicative than anything we enjoy. Wright’s film does a spectacular job with this model, as it understands that true horror is familiar, something an audience member may have experienced. I have found that there are two popular kinds of horror in cinema: the ‘other’ and the self/society. For instance, some early horror films focus on ‘fear of the foreign invader’, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), and ‘fear of female sexuality, like Cat People (1942), which coincidentally also features the fear of foreign people. Those issues are raised, confronted, and then generally solved by these films, so the audience can go home having expressed this fear, and either got it out of their system or placed it onto a specific character/monster. Then there is the other type of horror, which shifts this emphasis. It goes from critiquing the ‘other’ to critiquing society, not just ‘other’ individuals. While fear of the ‘other’ is certainly present in contemporary cinema, modern horror routinely turns to this perspective to critique its audience, or some of the assumptions that audience has. Rather than solving those fears, it aggravates them, forces the audience to recognize them, and continue to think about them from a new perspective once the film is over. So, while horror has always been political, it is either tidy or messy in this approach, meaning it either tidies away the horror and relieves some pressure, or it demonstrates that this horror is in some way real and that the audience has a responsibility to observe and stop it.

Wright’s film falls into the later category, alongside modern horror like Get Out (2017), Midsommar (2019), The Invisible Man (2020), and classics like Night of the Living Dead (1968). Eloise eventually triumphs over the film’s ghosts, but the horror she encounters during her dreams still exists. It’s something I have experienced, most women as well. There were moments in the film which felt so eerily familiar that the horror I felt was not just from the film. Notably, the scene where Eloise asks to leave the taxi after the driver starts making lude advances and must hide inside a store until he leaves. That specific thing has not happened to every woman, but most have dealt with similar situations where they feel (and are) trapped. What is frustrating about male gaze in cinema is that it often approaches women in the same fashion, and gives the audience, largely male, permission to view women in this way. ‘60s cinema is notorious for this gaze, but what is worse, is that when modern audiences critique these films, they are almost inevitably met with the ‘it was a different time’ excuse. The James Bond franchise is the perfect example of this, as nostalgia routinely glazes over the rampant sexual abuse in these films. They are still considered classics, but there is still an uncomfortable tension to that label. It was a different time, but what is wrong now has always been wrong and an abuse of power. Wright’s film suggests as much by including a prominent Bond poster and casting a former Bond girl as its serial killer, the legendary Diana Rigg. Rigg is also known for playing Emma Peel in The Avengers television series, long before Marvel sprung to mind. Peel is this incredible secret agent, who like the original Charlie’s Angels series, was written in an occasionally objectified and sexist way, but whose character inspired plenty of women. The character has since been hailed as a feminist icon, but Rigg’s role here is perhaps my favourite.

There is something quite moving about casting a world-renowned actress from the ‘60s, although she did much work after, in a film about deglamorizing that era. This is Rigg’s final role, and the last we see of her is as she sits on a bed, waiting for fire to consume her. Her character has gone through so much trauma because of the ‘60s, trauma which figures like Eloise had no idea existed before the events in the film. Eloise just saw the surface of the ‘60s, the glamorous women and music, not what was underneath, literally underneath her floorboards. The film is not a love letter to the ‘60s, anything but. It’s a screaming face projected onto a knife (which is a shot in the film), shouting that all the glamour we remember never existed. We saw part of a story, what we wanted to see. There was always something under the floorboards of the cinema, something below the narrative.

“Anyone who ever dreamed could look at me, and know I dream of you.”

Wright is an expert on emphasizing form and style, using something within the narrative to form additional information. It’s essentially the same model I highlighted above, of drawing the audience’s attention to something in the background that lends new meaning to the situation. He does this with all his films, but it is especially noticeable in works like Baby Driver, where song lyrics convey something about the situation, or the camera lines up perfectly so that some graffiti enters the frame at the right moment. For instance, when Baby is walking to a coffee shop, he passes a blue graffiti heart, but once he sees Deborah for the first time, the heart turns red behind him, showing that this is love at first sight. These features are always there, and impact your experience with the film, but sometimes it takes a few watches to see everything. Music is a fitting example of this approach, as the lyrics often match up with the characters, scene, and edit, or sometimes the character will quote lyrics from before, even ones that they technically didn’t hear because the song is non-diegetic. For instance, Eloise is also the name of a song written by Barry Ryan, which plays a pivotal role in the film. That also happens in Baby Driver as there are multiple scenes where characters reference how many songs are technically about Baby because they are called “Baby” something. Because Wright’s films often share this approach, fans understand that each film will rely on ‘so-called’ background elements, and that they should be prepared for this when watching his films. This means that Wright’s steady viewers will anticipate this approach for Last Night in Soho, whose narrative focuses on issues around gaze and being placed in the background. It’s not just a method in this latest film, it goes into the film’s larger commentary on what constitutes an era, and what gets forgotten.

The soundtrack for Last Night in Soho does an excellent job of highlighting dual meaning. It’s first aim is to relate to the ‘60s, so the audience can pick up on the tone of the era, everything that Eloise is interested in. The songs are catchy, rather cinematic, and are almost entirely about love. But these songs also play a second role, as with Wright’s other films. The songs become tense, and rather sad, when compared to the film’s horrifying subject. The film is not about romantic love, in fact, Sandie’s trouble began after she fell in love with Jack. All the romantic ideals heralded by these songs do not exist in Sandie’s life in the ‘60s, and so these subjects become just another betrayal. Sandie came to London to sing these very songs, and they end up becoming a cruel reminder of the dream she was never able to achieve, let alone a dream that was possible. There are several scenes where the lyrics in these songs take on a sinister or sad tone, particularly Sandie’s cover of Petula Clark’s “Downtown”, when she sings “everything’s waiting for you”. That lyric is directly related to the film’s horror, as Eloise quickly discovers that London is not at all what she anticipated, and there is a terrifying group of men waiting for her, just as Jack was waiting for someone like Sandie.

Another song example is Sandie Shaw’s “Puppet on a String”, which appears in a rather disturbing sequence where Sandie dances in a sort of baby-doll outfit with a group of identically dressed women. This is the first time Sandie and Eloise realize that Sandie’s dream of becoming a singer isn’t coming true, although there have been red flags. Eloise is one of the only women in the audience, and she notices this with some concern right before the curtains are drawn. When Eloise looks up, and realizes that Sandie is not the one singing, and is just a nameless dancer, she immediately realizes just how traumatizing this incident is. The jeering, the outfit, the overwhelming gaze around her. It’s a brutal moment, made even more brutal by the “Puppet on a String” song. The song is performed by artist Sandie Shaw, meaning that the song was written to be sung by a Sandie, but our Sandie doesn’t have that opportunity. The dance is also choreographed to look as though Sandie and the other girls are marionettes bouncing on strings, literalizing the song. Outside of Wright’s film, Shaw’s song is about being in love, and how it feels like your emotions are controlled by someone else. In this seedy environment, however, the lyrics, “If you say you love me madly, I’ll gladly be there like a puppet on a string” take on new meaning. Sandie is a puppet controlled by Jack, and no longer has control over her life. Eloise is also sort of a puppet in the film, as she has no control over these dreams or ghosts. It’s later revealed that Sandie cut her own strings, metaphorically, by killing Jack, slicing herself from him. Even so, this eerie comparison still exists. Sandie, dressed up as a helpless doll, is these men’s fantasy, and that implies that every woman is a puppet to them. Someone they can control and abuse. That is apparent in the following scene, where Sandie flees backstage and passes several dressing rooms, where women are being abused and sexualized, one who is possibly overdosing. Jack shouts at Sandie that this is what she agreed to, simply by having ambition and telling him she was willing to do anything to be a singer. Sandie assumed she would have to work as a waitress or at coat check, but she had no idea how corrupt and abusive this ‘glamorous’ world is. The film, however, hints at this revelation in a few early scenes.

“If I could live any place and any time, I’d live here, in London, in the ‘60s.”

After her first dream, Eloise becomes totally enamored with Sandie and Jack, living out the same dances as Sandie, the same everything. The more trauma Sandie undergoes, the more Eloise becomes a witness rather than a participant, often looking at Sandie from a mirror or nearby. The overlap we see in the first few dreams dissipates, so that Eloise doesn’t experience the same abuse that Sandie does, she just witnesses it. I’ve spoken about witnessing trauma a few times on this blog, as it’s an increasing feature in films which criticize male gaze. I tend to think of it along the same lines of as the War Boys in Mad Max Fury Road (2015), who shout “Witness Me!” when they are about to kill themselves for Immortan Joe. To them, it’s as though death doesn’t exist unless someone witnesses and remembers it. That concept adds a whole other layer to ghost stories, as ghosts force the living to witness them, to pay attention to their life, death, and unfinished business. Witnessing trauma in film has become a way to reconcile the invisible violence people, often women, face in both real life and cinema. While Sandie never asked Eloise to save her, or watch her life, Eloise witnesses and learns. There is, however, a cost to returning to the ‘60s, one which the film literalizes in the scene where Eloise buys a vintage raincoat, which possibly belonged to Sandie. At first, she is totally swept up in the idea of it, the look. She even steps outside to gaze at a long-closed nightclub, remembering Sandie’s first experience there, and wondering why the club isn’t open anymore. But then Eloise is rudely ushered back to the cashier’s desk and shown the reality of it. You can’t just wander off in unpaid coats, and this one is ridiculously expensive. The scene implies that the ‘60s, for all its glamorous style, comes with a cost, one which Eloise will need help paying off. It’s why she gets a job right after this scene, because she can’t afford this aesthetic without help. Sandie never received such help.

Fashion plays a crucial role in Wright’s film, as it’s something Eloise is always paying attention to. The audience is also asked to pay attention, as Eloise goes through several ‘makeovers’ in the film. She dyes her hair blonde and buys outfits to appear like Sandie, to the extent where characters assume she is the girl in her design. This glamorous look quickly melts in the latter half of the film, as she gets caught in the rain on Halloween and in the final scenes. Her hair goes flat, and her makeup runs into something horrifying. It marks that a profound change has happened to the way Eloise perceives Sandie and the ‘60s. Perhaps the most recognizable dress in the film is Sandie’s flowy pink dress, as it’s the first outfit she wears in the film, and the one Eloise tries to recreate in her class. I think it’s noteworthy that Eloise is inspired by this specific outfit, as it develops into a symbol for her experience with these dreams. When she first presents her design, it’s very similar to Sandie’s dress, with almost no variation. She is performing a cover, just as Sandie does of “Downtown” near the beginning of the film. But, as Eloise’s dreams become more traumatic, she begins to struggle with the dress, tearing it down and even attacking Jocasta with a pair of fabric scissors.

We see at the end of the film, that Eloise has successfully made the dress, but more importantly, has made it her own. It doesn’t look exactly like Sandie’s dress; it has some modern features that are entirely Elouise. This moment signals that Eloise has accepted what this dress represents, both the trauma and the optimistic place it once came from. Eloise was inspired by it because so was Sandie. She was bold and ambitious in the dress, and it arrives at the film’s pinnacle glamour scene, embodying both the person Sandie is at the beginning of the film, and what she is about to experience. It’s also sort of a ghostly dress, sharing the same loose fit as a stereotypical sheet over the head, but with a tight bedazzled collar around the neck. By making this ‘haunted’ dress, Eloise accepts how horrible this world was, but rather than just repeating or even romanticizing it (like she used to), Eloise makes it different. She redesigns the shape, and the hope and boldness it embodied for Sandie, and turns it away from objectification, thus giving it a new life.

“You can’t save me! Save yourself…”

One of the reasons Sandie endures what she does is because she is alone. She might be surrounded by other women, but there is not a single scene where she has a conversation with another woman. Although Eloise is always around, Sandie only speaks to her in one scene, and literally pushes her away. Sandie doesn’t want help, and she ignores Eloise even when Eloise burst through a mirror and hugs her. What is interesting is that Eloise also refuses help for most of the film. She isolates herself from her grandmother and refuses to tell John what is happening. When she does tell John, he surprisingly begins to help her. He is more than ready to believe her, and even convinces Jocasta to drop charges on Eloise for attacking her with scissors (I assume, it’s not shown). Eloise eventually accepts this support network, and it’s the only way she survives. Sandie, by contrast, only has one sympathetic figure, the woman at the bar. During one of the later scenes, Sandie is about to dance and advertise herself, but right as she does, she turns and sees an older woman standing at the bar, shaking her head. She is visibly upset, almost asking Sandie not to do this, but she never takes a step forward. She can’t help, but she can see what is happening, much like Eloise can. Meanwhile, Eloise receives help from women, specifically, lower-class women, not her classmates who are extremely high end, and can buy the finest clothes. Women like the bar owner, Eloise’s grandmother, her teacher (who is there to instruct the next generation), the female detective, and Sandie or Ms. Collins. Although Sandie refuses help, she takes responsibility for Eloise and becomes a sort of Grandmother figure, noticing her music taste and when Eloise dyes her hair. There is also the scene where Sandie ‘saves’ Eloise from being raped. At least that is what she assumes is happening, and who can blame her. Eloise begins screaming in the middle of the night and won’t open the door. When Sandie finally unlocks the door and sees John standing while a half-naked Eloise screams on the floor, she immediately recognizes something from her past. She can’t see what Eloise is watching, her own ‘murder’, but she recognizes sexual violence and threatens to kill John if he doesn’t leave. That threat is genuine with the reveal that Sandie is a serial killer, but then again, she has never had to save someone before. The slight compassion she has for Eloise defines the film’s climax, as she chooses to poison Eloise rather than stabbing her, both because she doesn’t fit Sandie’s usual mode, and because it seems like a kinder way. Sandie even props a few pillows for her, which is about as compassionate as she can be.

Much has already been reported about the various clues about Sandie/Ms. Collins’ true nature, especially the scene where she introduces herself. She rolls her eyes at Eloise’ fashion dream, mentions the smell of the apartment, and that she won’t do anything to change it. She also notes that she used to work here, implying that she was a maid, without revealing what she actually did. Another keen detail is that there are no male visitors allowed after 8:30, and that she only rents to women. Without saying it, Ms. Collins has already told Eloise everything she needs to figure out that she and Sandie are the same person. That is not the only unspoken thing in the film, however, as there is also the matter of Eloise’s mother. The only things we really know about her mother are that she traveled to London to study, she dealt with some mental health issues, she eventually killed herself, and that Eloise doesn’t know her father. There is a suggestion that Eloise’s mother dealt with the same thing as Sandie, in that she worked the streets, which also adds to why Eloise’ grandmother is so worried about the past repeating itself.

The biggest suggestion to Eloise’s background is that Lindsay recognizes Eloise, even before she transforms herself to look like Sandie. He explains that he remembers all the girls who used to work this area, but Eloise runs away before he can say anything else. It’s later revealed that Lindsay was a cop who used to investigate this area, hence him possibly knowing Eloise’s mother. Sandie becomes a surrogate Mother, which explains Eloise desperation to save her, and thus save at least one  maternal figure. Eloise’s mother also doesn’t appear in London once she travels there, implying that London is too traumatizing of a space. Even the police sexualize women there, when they should be defending people and helping the helpless. Lindsay tells Sandie to get out but doesn’t help and just sits there, judging her. He also could have just explained the situation to Eloise rather than acting cryptic and threatening her. There is also the implication that Lindsay was assigned to this area to find the men who went missing, rather than helping women like Sandie. When Eloise is doing research at the library, she finds multiple articles about missing men, but very few about women. That doesn’t mean that violence against women wasn’t happening, just that it wasn’t receiving the same attention. The male officers also refuse to help Eloise in the present, going as far as to make fun of her within ear shot. The police aren’t there to help in the film, instead, they further the trauma both Eloise and Sandie experience. That is arguably a reflection of the current conversation happening globally, but especially in Britain, of police violence against women. The only people who are willing to help Eloise are women, and a black man, people who typically die first in horror films, while the perpetrators are all white men. That is except for Sandie, but she operates through a different type of violence.

“There is a ghost in my house, the ghost of your memories.”

Sandie is not a traditional ghost; she isn’t dead. Yet, as Ms. Collins explains in the film’s climax, Sandie did die multiple times in that room. Every time she was abused, she died. She is a ghost in that she is forced to repeat the same trauma. Eloise is haunted by little pieces Sandie, the parts of her identity that died. The film is deeply sympathetic to Sandie, just as Eloise is, making her a justified serial killer. It even refuses to pick a final girl, as given that this is a horror film, Eloise should kill her. That’s what usually happens in horror films, the protagonist defeats the villain. Eloise can’t, however, because she isn’t the final girl. There can be no final girl when the abuse Sandie endured continues. Eloise is sexualized and uncomfortable in the present, meaning that the gaze Sandie was abused by still exists. It didn’t disappear with changing morals, it didn’t go away after the ‘60s, so how can there be the final of anything? Eloise is only able move forward by accepting that this trauma exists. The film ultimately refuses to make Sandie the villain nor the victim and honours her in that way. The only villains are the brutal faceless men who hunt Eloise and demand that she murder Sandie. There is a horror to Sandie, but the film is also compassionate. That last image of Ms. Collins sitting on the bed, resigned, is absolutely heartbreaking. She is about to become the ghost of that room, even though, as we have already seen, she has been dead for decades.

We see Sandie again in the very last scene, right as Eloise finishes her first runaway. Eloise notices her in a mirror nearby, wearing that pink dress. She marches up, confident, and taps the mirror with Sandie, just as she did in the first dream scene. Eloise’s happy and successful life is Sandie’s dream, and now she gets to see everything that Eloise wanted life to be. It’s a fitting afterlife, and a fitting end to the film. Wright’s movie is about cinema, but more so about the gazed woman ‘60s cinema so often relied on, and the harm that gaze does, especially in horror and thriller films. It talks about a deeply troubling and relevant issue with the utmost respect without succumbing to that gaze itself. It never objectifies Sandie and Eloise, even in the moments where Sandie is overly sexualized by club members. That gaze doesn’t extend into the camera work and editing, it’s enough to discuss this gaze through the film’s horror. It’s a ghost story, but like its narrative suggests, that ghost is not entirely dead.

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