Edgar Wright seems like he was born to make horror movie. In a sense, he already has, depending on your analysis of the horror-to-comedy-to-squishy-drama ratios in Shaun of the Dead (or your tolerance for the millennial antics of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World; it’s my favorite Wright movie so far, but seems to be one of his more divisive works). Even in his non-zombie pictures, there are dark corners: The elaborate gore of Hot Fuzz, protruding into a spoof of a genre that doesn’t generally go that far (think of Timothy Dalton, spired through the jaw), or the ominous alien invasion (and existential dread) of The World’s End. Wright’s comedies are uncommonly perceptive about the psychology at the contemporary, and often very male, intersection between repression, dorkiness, and despair—without skimping on the geek-show flourishes that genre fans tend to love.
Last Night in Soho is not about men—at least not in its most literal sense. It’s the first Wright movie to assume a female point-of-view, then doubles and blurs that POV with dream logic. At first it’s about Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie), a withdrawn young woman who speaks in a slurry whisper, attending fashion college in London while daydreaming of the ‘60s culture and fashions she worships from decades later. With her obsessively rose-colored vision of past cultural peaks, she could fit right in on the couches of Wright’s nerd-layabout TV series Spaced, though she’d be the best-dressed character by a mile. Irritated by her snarky roommate Jocasta (Synnove Karlsen), Eloise vacates the dorms in favor of a flat upstairs from owner Ms. Collins (the late Diana Rigg). Living on her own for the first time, she plays her retro records loud and soaks in the flashing neon outside her window. But at night, she goes further, dreaming herself all the way back to the 1960s. In her realer-than-real dreams, she’s not exactly jumping into the body of Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), an aspiring singer who apparently once lived in Eloise’s flat; she’s more like a shadow, sometimes watching Sandie from a mirror-close vantage point, her empathy (or is it envy?) so intense that she sometimes feels as if she’s sharing Sandie’s experiences.
At first, Eloise is intoxicated by these visions. Sandie is bold and cool where Eloise is a tongue-tied wannabe who doesn’t know how to deal with the self-promoting likes of Jocasta. But after Sandie meets Jack (Matt Smith), a smooth operator on the London club scene, danger seeps into her life. Eloise watches helplessly as cracks spiderweb through the promising young singer’s aspirations. The visions are no longer confined to the reverie of sleep, and her waking life starts to suffer. She becomes convinced she can somehow save the “real” Sandie—or at least bring her tormentors to justice, years later. In the wise words of McBain: It’s not a comedy.
Strange, though, that Wright’s best comedies build and escalate so much more confidently. The climax of Hot Fuzz is a delirious extended payoff to countless set-ups; The World’s End reaches a fever pitch of alcoholic dysfunction. Last Night in Soho peaks much earlier, as Wright twirls and glides through London nightclubs; he seemingly never tires of framing Taylor-Joy with McKenzie trailing her impossibly through a mirror, and I never tired of spinning my head around these trick shots. The performers are ideally cast: McKenzie may be an experienced young actor, but she can also be genuinely off-putting and strange, pushing further from her aged-child work in the recent Old, and while Taylor-Joy can certainly do more than what’s asked of her here, it’s hard to think of a stronger choice to play up the insta-iconography that makes Sandie feel unstoppable, then, well, quite stoppable. (Sandie’s signature pink tent dress and Eloise’s actual pajamas make for an almost cruel game of who-wore-the-flowy-thing-better?) Taylor-Joy gets to do some song and dance numbers, too (though usually not at the same time), warbling “Downtown” and cutting across the floor with Matt Smith.
At first, the movie’s spin into darker territory feels appropriately dizzying, even—dare I?—De Palma-esque. But Wright lets the story go slack with repetition; just as ubiquitous as those mirror shots and neon lights are McKenzie’s over-many opportunities to sit bolt upright and affect wide-eyed terror. Perhaps it’s realistic that Eloise starts to crack under the pressure so quickly, but it isn’t much fun to watch—and isn’t as harrowing as Wright seems to think. He keeps throwing out the same ghostly figures for “BOO!” moments that are the very model of cheap jump scares, no elegance to their rigging or giddy terror in their execution. He is, it turns out, not that great at making a horror movie—at least not the one he has in mind here. Last Night in Soho has designs on some sort of feminist statement about the cruelty of the male-driven entertainment industry (or, really, the world at large; fair enough), but his twists aren’t especially galvanizing or transgressive, maybe because every character apart from Eloise and Sandie is a tedious caricature. There were caricatures in Scott Pilgrim, too, but (perhaps owing to the comic-book source material) they were lively ones, sketched in bold lines. This is more like the cartoon archetypes of Baby Driver, without the release of that movie’s action sequences.
There’s something else that ties Soho to Driver: They both feel like odd sidelong ways of making musicals without really making musicals. Bringing the musicality of pop and the ebullience of a great music video to the action picture, bridging a gap that’s smaller than many will admit, fine, sure, good idea. The second (or maybe third, counting Pilgrim) time you seem to be using one genre as an outlet for another, I dunno; maybe just make the damn musical already. Maybe Wright’s point is that only horror can ultimately accommodate Sandie’s lived experiences as a young woman.
Antlers isn’t as exciting to watch as Last Night in Soho. It’s a grim, damp, autumnal movie, whose characters all have dark circles under their eyes, either literally or spiritually, and it’s so insistently about trauma that it feels designed to troll horror fans who grit their teeth at the “elevated” descriptor just as much as it feels designed to photocopy the A24 mojo for the former Fox Searchlight. Like Soho, it comes from a director who isn’t exactly a Horror Guy: Scott Cooper has credits like Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace, and here funnels hardscrabble men, the women who are concerned for them, crippling addictions, and beards into a creature feature with the Guillermo del Toro seal of approval. Yet the movie’s bona fides are strong: It’s a creepy, unsettling, and sometimes quite gnarly genre piece, and probably Cooper’s most accomplished movie so far.
It helps that Cooper never treats the story’s trauma—that’s what it chooses from the trauma-grief-patriarchy rubric; Soho goes for patriarchy—as a lurking twist. It does lurk, in the backgrounds of Julia (Keri Russell), a teacher returning to her small Oregon town and living with her brother Paul (Jesse Plemons), who has recently been elected sheriff. They share an intense, abused upbringing that Julia escaped more fully than Paul did, though it’s also implied that she may have suffered more (at least before she left). The horrors of abuse are more literalized by Julia’s student Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas), who Julia notices appears to be carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders (and doing the requisite creepy kid drawings of menacing figures). We see early on at least part of Lucas’s burden: a father and a younger brother who have some kind of ghastly sickness, and whose bodies seem to be… changing. The movie’s title will provide some clues as to what kind.
The movie cuts back and forth between Lucas, spooked and squirrelly, trying to help his family; and Julia, trying to manage her life and eventually help Lucas. Eventually, they intersect more often, and there are some gruesome scares. That’s about all there is to the movie, plotwise, but Cooper creates a more naturalistic atmosphere of dread; there are times where Antlers more closely resembles the kind of horror movie you might have expected from David Gordon Green in place of something like Halloween Kills, even if Cooper lacks Green’s lyricism. The metaphors about the infectious burdens of abuse may be heavy-handed, but they track reasonably well, and if the movie is a little overextended at 100 minutes (it’s based on a short story and it shows), Russell, Plemons, and Thomas provide enough human interest to keep it from slogging into doomy muck.
Antlers is more workmanlike than Last Night in Soho, and (in purely cynical, what-will-sell-at-this-moment terms) at least as opportunistic. It can’t match the highs of Wright’s movie; highs seem antithetical to its whole approach, which is very Serious Side of Horror (again: trauma!). Yet as serious-minded as it is, it never feels like it ought to be something else entirely. There’s no music in its heart—and, admittedly, little respite from its multi-generational gloom. Cooper seems to have a horror movie because he had to. Wright seems to have made one as some kind of obligation. That sounds like the same thing, but it isn’t, quite.
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