Movie trailers tend to fall back on a certain bag of tricks, a particular favorite of the last decade being the Haunted Pop Song. You know the one: Where a canonical hit of yesteryear is slowed down and drawn out — preferably with the help of some unholy children's choir — until it oozes and melts, less a remake than a kind of musical tar pit. (Blame The Social Network, to start.)
Last Night in Soho (in theaters Friday) does that with Petula Clark's "Downtown," turning her winsome 1965 single into a dreamy, spectral a cappella dirge. Except this one actually earns it: That's star Anya Taylor-Joy singing for her life from (yes) 1965, the year in which approximately half its story takes place. And Soho is one hell of a half of a movie: a wildly styled neon reverie whose spooky bedazzlement only crashes to earth when it succumbs to bog-standard horror in the final act.
Thomasin McKenzie's Eloise, or Ellie as she's mostly called, is the kind of girl for whom the past isn't past; it's more vivid than the present. An aspiring clothes designer raised in rural Cornwall by her kindly grandmother (Rita Tushingham), she's plastered her bedroom with posters of Twiggy and Breakfast at Tiffany's and twirls blissfully to the crackling sound of her mother's old LPs. But fashion school means moving up to the big city, and freshman year quickly turns into a gauntlet of poisonous mean girls and dorm-room party monsters — not the least of whom is her reluctant roommate, a smirking vamp named Jacosta (Synnove Karlsen).
Jacosta's obvious disdain for this little country mouse in her home-sewn Etsy smocks sends Ellie searching for an off-campus room of her own, which she finds — seemingly untouched for the last six decades, give or take — in the home of the spinsterish Miss Collins (the late, great Diana Rigg) who only asks that she pay up front and not have male guests after 8 p.m. There's a turntable, a landline ("Do you know what a landline is?"), and a buzzing Bistro sign that blinks red and blue through the window all night long; to Ellie, it's perfect.
It is also, it turns out, some kind of wonderland-wormhole to a swinging London of more than half a century ago. Every night under the blinking lights, sleep transports her into the long-ago body of Taylor-Joy's Sandie, a cupid-lipped beauty in a bubblegum babydoll who seems to be everything Ellie isn't: brash, blond, completely sure of her place in the world. She's got the voice to be a singer like Cilla Black, and a suave nightclub manager named Jack (Matt Smith) seems like the kind of man who makes things like that happen. He also quickly becomes her lover, and Ellie is there for all of it: She's in Sandie and outside of her too, a sort of metaphysical plus-one whose presence only materializes through a looking glass (and some clever camera work).
Parisa Taghizadeh/Focus Features Anya Taylor-Joy and Matt Smith in 'Last Night in Soho.'
Soon Sandie's nocturnal realm of champagne cocktails and gentleman's clubs becomes more real to Ellie than her days at school — despite the increasingly worried queries of her grandmother and the gentle flirtations of an amiable boy in her class (Attack the Block's Michael Ajao) — and her evenings spent pulling pints at a grubby pub. And the visits themselves start to take on a darker, more sinister tone: a foreshadowing of something that won't end well for Sandie, or someone.
This is all visual catnip for writer-director Edgar Wright (Baby Driver, Hot Fuzz), who revels in putting his two luminous young stars through their the-mirror-has-two-faces paces and sending them down into the glittery swirl of a Sixties that likely never really was, all velvet banquettes and white vinyl raincoats. In thrall to that he forgot, maybe, to fully flesh out the script: What feels at first like a knowing nod to classic movie tropes begins to turn more silly and literal in the second hour as Ellie spirals into frantic, fragile cliché, a girl too lost in her own dream logic to tether the story to the real stakes of waking life.
The New Zealand-born McKenzie (JoJo Rabbit, Leave No Trace) excels at a kind of delicate doe-eyed fervor; you believe her Ellie would be subsumed by someone as voraciously alive as Taylor-Joy's Sandie in a moment (even if perhaps she never really lived at all). Smith is breezily good as the slippery Jack, and Terence Stamp, still a lion at 83, turns up too briefly as an enigmatic link between the two eras. It's also a stealthy gift to watch Rigg, who passed away last September, in her final performance: An original Avenger and former Bond Girl, she might have actually come closest to embodying the mad, mod world Wright so lovingly recreates here on screen, if only he'd found a way to make it more than skin deep. Grade: B