We like to think of art as being objective, but nothing is created in a vacuum. All movies are, on some subconscious level, beholden to their creators’ influences. But things get a bit stickier when it comes to pastiche, where the source material comes out of the shadows to be reckoned with as paratext.
Edgar Wright’s directorial style is heavily indebted to the films and media he loves. Whether it’s the “Fulci’s Restaurant” listing in the Yellow Pages of Shaun of the Dead or the 8-bit video game sound effects peppered throughout Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Wright is always honest and up-front about citing his sources.
With Last Night in Soho, the terms “giallo-inspired” and “giallo-esque” have been tossed around. And the comparison is not without due cause. The movie boasts a dreamy, neon-tinged vibe, flashing knives, and a sinister edge sure to pique the interest of fans of the genre.
While the movie wears its admiration for giallo on its sleeve, its debt to the genre is slightly more complex. As Wright states in an interview with Rue Morgue, Last Night in Soho bears a visual debt to giallo heavyweights like Mario Bava and Dario Argento. But more consciously, Wright was attempting to pay tribute to the 1960s Euro-thrillers that spiritually preceded giallo, including works by Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Powell.
And as we watched the movie, another striking genetic match emerged: Roman Polanski’s Repulsion.
With a deep sense of paranoia haunting Last Night in Soho‘s main character, Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie), and the anonymous male attackers lurking around every corner, it’s easy to clock the parallels with the 1965 psychological thriller. And if the similarities were conscious, it’s understandable that Wright would bury the lede on the resemblance. After all, admiring Repulsion requires not only wrestling with the complexities of the film’s uncomfortable content but also a fair degree of real-world ickiness, thanks to the crimes of its director.
Last Night in Soho’s effectiveness as a pastiche of all these interlocked elements hinges on its ability to embrace the fundamentally nasty spirit of its source material. Gialli — and their spiritual predecessors — are icky pieces of work, chock-full of slaughtered innocents, brutal slashings, and a queasy invitation to enjoy the candy-red carnage.
And Wright may be a lot of things, but he is not nasty. Not in the way giallo and its predecessors are nasty. And certainly not in the way that Polanski is nasty.
Wright is clearly trying to make the movie’s niche interests as accessible as possible. This is clearest with the final act twist, which attempts to hastily force a 21st-century girlboss into a space in which feminism is complex, to say the least. The end of Last Night in Soho offers a troublingly simplistic spin on victimhood that calls to mind “is this girl power?” memes rather than any subversive commentary on the genre’s gender politics.
So, by attempting to have its genre cake and retain a sense of “niceness” too, the movie undermines its own homage.
There is another movie released this year worth considering in this conversation about cult genre pastiche. James Wan’s Malignant is similarly indebted to a repertoire of horror offerings and has its own giallo threads, including an abundance of leather and an especially brazen knife reveal. But the work of Frank Henenlotter swiftly emerges as the movie’s primary influence.
Wan walks a very fine line between revering his sources and not taking himself too seriously. And he does so with a gleeful precision — lacking in Last Night in Soho — that makes everything feel effortless.
Malignant‘s cinematic sources have a semi-intentional comedic reputation. They are outlandish, gory, and unequivocally not trying to put on airs. They are unabashed genre trash beloved by a passionate contingent of horror fans: films with demonic twins and parasitic appendages whispering in your ear. To pull this off, you have to lean into the ridiculousness of the premise, not shy away from it.
There is, of course, a risk to Wan’s approach. Namely that his gambit only works if you are in on the joke. A casual scroll through Malignant’s Letterboxd reviews reveals a clear rift between the audience members who were and weren’t picking up what Wan was putting down. One popular user calls the movie “amateurish,” and you can practically hear the digital woosh of Wan’s intentions flying over their head.
To be clear: it’s not that those who “get it” are better than those failing to recognize Wan’s references. Rather, like the gooey, goofy films that it draws from, Malignant is consciously not for everybody. The fact that this movie was unleashed on the general public is nothing short of a miracle.
Baffled audiences have responded accordingly. Malignant, which received a ‘C’ grade from moviegoers via CinemaScore and disappointed at the box office, is geared towards a very specific — and depraved — subsect of horror fans.
Setting Last Night in Soho and Malignant side-by-side, the conclusion seems to be that the interests of commercial filmmaking are fundamentally at odds with the genre outputs that win the long game of cult cinema. Either you dull a genre’s bite or you turn your back on a wide audience: the choice is yours.