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‘Last Night in Soho’: Gorgeous horror story revels in the looks, sounds of London’s swinging ’60s

In one of the year’s most exciting movies, Thomasin McKenzie stars as a time-hopping design student who melds with a mysterious singer (Anya Taylor-Joy).

New London transplant Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie) can see what others don’t in “Last Night in Soho.”
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Didn’t see that coming.

Or that. Or THAT.

Edgar Wright’s piercingly effective, bloody strange, time-tripping “Last Night in Soho” is a hallucinogenic and wonderfully disturbing love letter to the fashions and sights and sounds of the London of the swinging 1960s; period-piece pop songs by the likes of Dusty Springfield, the Kinks and Petula Clark, and any number of creepy, psychological horror films. It’s a crazy kaleidoscope of bright colors, dark corners, David Lynch-style set pieces and shock moments designed to keep you up at night — and it features a quintet of memorable performances from two of the best young actors around and three iconic Brits.

“Last Night in Soho” announces itself as a singularly memorable visual work in a striking opening sequence in which Thomasin McKenzie’s Ellie glides down a hallway and into her bedroom to the strains of Peter and Gordon’s “A World Without Love.” Ellie lives with her grandmother Peggy (Rita Tushingham) in a quaint country home in Cornwall, as her mother committed suicide more than a decade earlier — but Mum remains a presence in Ellie’s life, often appearing in hyper-realistic visions via the mirror in her bedroom, which is decorated like a shrine to the 1960s.

Ellie is a talented and smart and lovely young woman, but she has dealt with serious mental health issues for most of her life, and when she moves to London to study fashion design, she is almost immediately overwhelmed by the sheer intensity of everyday life, from predatory men lurking in the shadows to her truly awful roommate Jacasta (Synnove Karlsen) to an overall feeling of simply not belonging in this place and time.

Desperate to escape the cruelty of her roommate and the party atmosphere in her dorm, Ellie rents an upstairs room on a quiet street from a cranky but seemingly kindhearted old landlady (the late Diana Rigg), who is amused by Ellie’s fascination with the music of HER generation. It’s when Ellie settles in at her new place that “Last Night in Soho” really kicks into the next-level crazy-ass gear, as Ellie finds herself regularly transported to the mid-1960s (Check out that movie theater marquee for “Thunderball!”) and becomes something of a time-travel, mirror-image twin to a beautiful blond aspiring singer named Sandy (Anya Taylor-Joy). At times Ellie is an unseen observer to Sandy’s experiences; on other occasions, it’s more like she’s inhabiting Sandy’s body. It’s even weirder than it sounds, but it’s also different and cool and bizarre.

Aspiring singer Sandy (Anya Taylor-Joy) becomes a sort of time-travel twin for Ellie.
Focus Features

At first it seems as if Sandy is living the life of Ellie’s dreams, as she auditions for a singing gig by delivering a sensually effective rendition of Petula Clark’s “Downtown” and becomes involved with a dashing and handsome talent manager named Jack (Matt Smith), who looks like he stepped out of a hipster TV series. Very quickly, though, it becomes clear Sandy is being exploited and abused by increasingly nefarious forces, much to Ellie’s horror.

Meanwhile, in present day, Ellie creates some exciting, 1960s-inspired fashion designs and finds some comfort in a budding relationship with a sensitive and kind fellow student (Michael Ajao), but she feels she’s being stalked by a mysterious, silver-haired old-timer (Terrence Stamp) who says she looks very familiar to him, and she is haunted in her nightmares by visions that go from the chilling to the blood-spattered and feel more like memories than visions. WHAT IS HAPPENING?!

Co-writer-director Wright is clearly a fan of the London music and movies of the 1960s, as evidenced by his casting of Rita Tushingham (“A Taste of Honey,” “The Knack … and How to Get It,” “Smashing Time”), Terrence Stamp (“The Collector,” “Modesty Blaise”) and Diana Rigg (Emma Peel in the mid-1960s cult hit espionage TV series “The Avengers”), who are all outstanding in key supporting roles. Thomasin McKenzie and Anya Taylor-Joy add to their already impressive resumes with dual lead performances — McKenzie beautifully conveying Ellie’s gift/curse for seeing and experiencing things beyond what most people ever conceive, while Taylor-Joy expertly conveys Sandy’s transformation from hopeful aspiring singer to abused victim to … something else. “Last Night in Soho” is one of the most unusual and exciting movies of the year.