Edgar Wright’s Last Night In Soho has been a surprisingly divisive film so far this year, and while I wouldn’t call it any sort of spectacular milestone or anything, it’s a beautifully atmospheric, lavishly detailed, very well acted mystery thriller that led me right into its world and entertained me thusly. Rising star Thomasin Mackenzie plays Eloise, a shy, reserved girl from a small village in the country who is excepted at London’s college of fashion design. She arrives with stars in her eyes only to be disappointed by less than accommodating classmates and a stern, odd landlady (the great Diana Rigg in her final film role). As if homesickness, displacement anxiety and loneliness aren’t enough, she finds herself whisked away back in time to a dazzling London of the 60’s every night when she goes to sleep, where she becomes the mirrored dream avatar of aspiring singer Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy) whose life takes a dark, tragic trajectory in a series of events that Eloise has an unfortunately intimate, visceral backstage pass to observe. Who is Sandie, and why does she draw Eloise into her hazy nightmare that’s now decades gone by? Who is the dapper yet nasty lounge lizard Jack (Matt King) who encircles her life like a satin suited vulture? And who is the Silver Haired Gentleman played with devilish malevolence by the legendary Terence Stamp who appears to Eloise in the present like some kind of spectral Greek chorus? These are questions best left answered by the film’s twisty, macabre narrative that unfurls like a snake ready to strike. Mackenzie has an impossibly bright future and anchors the film in human vulnerability, while Joy’s gorgeous yet ever so slightly sinister features make a nice ghostly aura hovering over the story. London itself is lovingly and meticulously obsessed over by Wright and his creative team, and beautifully resurrected for the time travel to the 60’s, complete with lush smoke rooms, dank heroin soaked brothels and star spattered retro marquees. The story isn’t just an empty shock horror romp either that exists for cheap thrills or just to lead the audience on a blood soaked breadcrumb trail, there is actual emotional resonance and sorrowful tragedy here, especially in Sandie’s unfortunate, horrifying story arc. So I’m not really sure where the unimpressed reactions have come from, I mean it’s not a groundbreaking game changer for horror but it’s definitely a stunning gothic mystery full of chilly autumn atmosphere, detailed production design, a jaw dropping soundtrack and performances that are wall to wall scene stealers. A lot of spooky fun.
Horror movies always work best for me when the scares are in service of story, when character and emotion come first and the supernatural or horrific elements work their way into the human side organically, which is what we see in Sergio C. Sánchez’s Marrowbone, a wonderful, terrifying, heartbreaking masterwork that I just happened upon while browsing Shudder. You’d think it would have made a bigger splash with how prolific it’s four principle young cast members are, but it’s just as well that it retains hidden gem status. An English family of four children migrate over to America with their mother, running from a dark past and taking up residence in Marrowbone House, a place once owned by vague family. After the mother passes away the four are left on their own to financially keep the house, look after each other and survive demonic trauma that hovers over all of them them. Oldest brother Jack (George MacKay from Captain Fantastic, How I Live Now and 1917) is the natural leader and caretaker, trying his best to look out for younger siblings Billy (Charlie Heaton of Stranger Things), Sam (Matthew Stagg) and Jane (Mia Goth from Suspiria and A Cure For Wellness). They basically have no one in the world now except their friend local librarian Allie (Anya Taylor Joy, The VVitch, Split), who soon falls deeply in love with Jack and has a desire to help him and his family through dark times. Soon they hear eerie noises from the attic and a suspiciously sentient full length mirror draws attention in inexplicable ways as the ghosts of their past rise up to haunt them and memories once long buried begin to surface. I don’t want to say too much because this is such a fun puzzle box of a story to unravel and includes some twists that are tough to see coming (pay attention to the poster, where a big clue hides in plain sight). It’s a sad, forlorn tale about children growing up far quicker than they should have to, familial trauma and violence leaking over into the next generation and the ripple effect that evil and malcontent in a family can have. There’s wonderful romance that is sold effectively by MacKay and Joy, who are both superb, as are Heaton and Goth in roles that are secondary but no less deeply felt and acted. The scares are genuinely, bone chillingly fucking terrifying stuff, and the fact that restraint and subtlety is used make them all the more effective. Seriously, there are a few squirm out of your skin, shudder down your spine moments that push the creep factor past eleven on the dial, which isn’t easy to do. What makes the film work so well for me is that it cares deeply for these kids, their situation and makes each character stand out in their uniqueness, thanks to strong acting work, writing and music. It has a slight gothic feel, and I almost got like a ‘horror version of Narnia’ fantasy feel from these characters and their plight, but that could have just been me. Brilliantly written and directed by Sánchez (his freaking feature debut I might add), vividly and emotionally acted, it’s just a beautiful and frightening story worth immersing yourself in and one of the best horror films I’ve seen in a long time. 10/10.
Morgan is one of the slickest genre flicks I’ve seen in recent years, finely tuned like a barbed wire tightrope, full of nasty surprises, throat ripping action and that ever present ethical turmoil that hangs about in any films that deal with artificial humanoid beings. It’s only weakness is exactly that stylistic strength: it’s so tight and streamlined that one occasionally feels like the scales tip in the favour of style over substance, but it’s a minor quibble when you take a step back and look at just how entertaining and fired up this piece is. The filmmakers are minimally concerned with the moral grey areas that cloning wades into, and subsequent philosophical pondering, but more than anything they just want to pull the ripcord and blast full throttle into an adrenaline soaked, R-rated sci-if tale with vague aspects of a character study. The title refers to Morgan (The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy in a performance both terrifying and heartbreaking), a genetically engineered humanoid girl held at a secluded facility alongside researchers, one of which she has just had a violent incident with. The corporate honcho (Brian Cox in a sly, all too brief honcho) dispatches a cold, clinical asset in the form of Kate Mara, sent to assess the situation and implement any measures necessary. She is an outsider, a callous bicep who flexes at the whims of the company. The researchers and handlers, however, are not. They have grown up around Morgan, invested time and, somewhat unwisely, emotion into her and will stop at nothing to ensure her survival. Paternal Toby Jones, opinionated Jennifer Jason Leigh and compassionate Rose Leslie prove to be a formidable armada against Mara’s evaluation, and tensions arise. Morgan has her own cloudy agenda though, and whether by flawed design, ghost in the shell syndrome or pure survival instinct, proves to be the greatest danger of all. She experiences people at their best, worst and most enigmatic, and her startling behaviour is a reflection of all of it, and a sobering example of humanity’s pitiful inability to perfect the creation of artificial life, at least in this film’s universe anyway. From Mara’s threatening presence, to an intense evaluation from a particularly nasty psychiatrist (Paul Giamatti overacting so hard he almost sucks the set dec up into his orbit), it’s no wonder Morgan snaps. Now when she snaps, the film more or less whips all its chips on the table, flips said table and hulk slams it two floors down. All subtlety and thought provocation kind of get left in the dust as everything careens towards an especially visceral climax, and that’s okay, as long as it doesn’t leave you feeling underwhelmed. I kind of had the intuition it was going to take the rambunctious root overall, and took comfort in the fact that it at least somewhat focused on the delicate aspects earlier on. It’s a well oiled machine, impeccably casted, given just enough pathos to keep our sentimental sides invested, and more than enough visceral hullabaloo to get our pulses dancing, all set to a score both thundering and graceful. Great stuff.
The Witch offers up an oppresively freaky folktale that still manages to go for broke with demented and disturbing stuff, whilst still keeping it moody and reigned in in equal measure, walking an admirable tightrope with style on one side, substance on the other. The substance lies in the interpersonal relationships between a hapless New England pioneer family trying to hack it alone in the land, living next to a deep dark forest that serves home to the titular cretin, plaguing their existence at every turn. The style lies in that forest, as well as a musical score that kwill shake your bones up and then some, accenting a tale of religious dread, insidious distrust and primal paranoia in a time before reason had grasped humanity, it seems. Plus there’s a big scary fucking goat called Black Philip who seems sentient, which was enough to give me the creepin willies. The family is booted from a plantation for some vague religious politics involving the haughty patriarch (Ralph Ineson is excellently fervent and riled up). Tryon to start a homestead on their own proves to be one nightmare after another out there though, especially when virginal daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor Joy, a striking beauty) loses the young baby during a split second game of peekaboo on the outskirts of the forest. Things go depressingly downhill from there as the collective sanity of this clan starts to evaporate into feverish mania, while the woods and the witch constantly loom over everything. The dialogue is all period specific which helps with authenticity, and as far as atmosphere goes, you practically drown in it, quite an achievement really. I took quite a long time in getting to see this, and I didn’t quite expect then level of literal horror on display. I was thinking it’d be more unseen, metaphorical, slow paced. It really does mean witch though, as well as that nasty damn goat. You’ll watch your back at the petting zoo after sitting through this one. Well done.