(Three sections; the second section contains mild spoilers for Last Night in Soho.)
Almost exactly seven years ago, my sister and I spent some weeks navigating the stagnant backwaters of Alabama bureaucracy, trying to get my mother’s will the approvals needed before we, her daughters and sole heirs, could return to our lives. The process, insofar as I ever understood what the hell what going on, required us to show up, will in hand, at rigidly designated times, there to contend with a pissed-off clerk and a fresh set of things we, the petitioners with the suspicious off-brand accents, had managed to fuck up. I beg your pardon, mess up. This was the South, and we couldn’t even permit ourselves the comfort of cussing anyone out.
What this meant in practical terms was that my sister Rebecca and I were stuck in my mother’s one-story condo townhouse in Gardendale, sorting and packing up Mom’s stuff, feeding and re-homing her two cats, and dealing with the ghost. Not my mother’s ghost. She had just died there, it was true, but she passed on peacefully, knowing full well she was loved, a few hours after the three of us watched 20 Feet From Stardom to give Mom one more time with her music.
I had arrived to help our mother after my sister did. By way of welcome Rebecca stated flatly that there was a ghost, and I brushed this off in the way my sister, I assure you, loves. The townhouses were new builds, I told her, less than a half-decade old. There couldn’t be a ghost. Ghosts take time. They have to marinate. Rebecca countered with the night she had recently spent in the front-facing living room, asleep in the La-Z-Boy recliner, having locked and bolted the door in her ingrained Chicago fashion. She awoke in the wee hours with an almighty start, conscious of a wind blowing around her. The front door stood wide open.
Determined not to lose an argument as soon as I got there, I asked why Rebecca was sleeping in the recliner when the place had a second bedroom. “I don’t like the cold spot,” she said. The tightly designed room had but one spot where a bed could fit, and that corner was perceptibly, inexplicably cold, day and night. There was no vent, no window nor even a crack in the wall anywhere near the spot.
“Where do I sleep?” I asked. “Well, in the second bedroom,” said my sister. “Don’t worry. I’m fine with the recliner.”
My mother didn’t last long. Rebecca had tried once to ask her about the history of the house, only to get stonewalled by Mom, who was facing eternity and, understandably, in no mood to discuss anyone else’s. Those first few days in Gardendale, I piled extra blankets on the bed and my sister triple-checked the front door at night. Ensuring our mother’s comfort was our constant preoccupation, and more than enough to keep our minds off anything.
Once my sister and I were alone, we could no longer ignore the weirdness we were living with. The cats, robbed of my mother’s soothing presence, whipped around corners and skidded over furniture in a constant state of alarm, staring past us and occasionally hissing at nothing, or at least nothing visible to human eyes. None of my cat-loving wiles could coax either feline into the second bedroom for a cuddle. I was relieved for their skittish little selves when the adopter took them away.
Meanwhile, Rebecca had befriended the neighbors, a skill I had never bothered to master in New York, and in due course she pried the truth out of one reluctant lady. “Y’all had enough trouble. We were afraid it might make you nervous. But…” It was not at all a romantic Southern ghost story. My mother, it seemed, got a good deal on the townhouse because someone had died there. The first owner, a woman in her late 40s or so, young by the complex’s standards, was addicted to opioids. Scruffy sorts of people came to see her but never stayed long. She lived alone and made no friends. One night an ambulance arrived—no one knew who had called it—and they took the lady away, dead of an overdose.
Perhaps it’s superfluous to add that the woman had died in the second bedroom.
Armed with an explanation, Rebecca and I now regarded our spectral squatter as just another issue with the house, along with its cranky plumbing and odd layout. We would put away the dishes, shut all the cabinets, and return to the kitchen to find a single cabinet door wide open. More than once, a book placed firmly on the shelf fell off, always when we’d just left the room. The front-door trick seemed to be a specialty act saved for newcomers to the living room; it was pulled on my eldest nephew on his first night, after he volunteered for the recliner.
My nephew subsequently slept in the walk-in closet, but somehow, none of this worried me or my sister. We didn’t regard the ghost as angry or menacing, although we wished she’d leave the front door alone. She was unhappy, acting out in a toddler way that we as parents recognized. I found I couldn’t bring myself to sleep anywhere except the cold bed. It was fine with the extra blankets, though I awoke with my nose as chilled as a bottle of rosé. She wants attention, I told Rebecca. I’d feel like I was snubbing her if I moved.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Many people don’t believe in ghosts, and I know some will conclude that Rebecca and I spent five weeks in a house full of drafts, forgetting where we put things. Those who do believe may instead think that deliberately sleeping in a supernatural cold spot is the act of a lunatic.
Either way, I’m sharing this Halloween tale to explain both my own temperament and why I fell in love with Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho when I saw it last year. I believe the key is that, while Gardendale is firmly, almost tragically suburban, I’ve been a city girl for many moons, as has Rebecca. And Last Night in Soho understands urban ghosts.
You see, city people aren’t afraid of ghosts. Real city people—“bury me under my favorite bar” city people, who can’t imagine living anywhere else—are attracted to ghosts. Ghosts are part of what lured us in the first place, even if we experience them only as a chill strolling past a vanished theater, or a pang when passing a plaque that says someone long dead once lived there. Sure, brand-new city person, you showed up long after Dorothy Parker, or Edie Sedgwick or Charlie Parker. They’re keeping you company all the same. The possibilities of their lives still cling to the walls and the pavement. So too do their mistakes and their misfortunes.
One scene in Last Night in Soho captures this as beautifully as anything I’ve ever seen. The 1960s–obsessed Eloise (Thomasin Mackenzie), a country mouse who has just moved to London to study fashion, hates her dormitory and most of the people in it. She finds a top-floor bedsit in a classic mews and settles in happily with her swingin’ vinyl and her vintage wardrobe. On her first night, Ellie falls asleep to the eerie melodrama of Cilla Black’s “You’re My World.”
Like Alice through the looking glass, Ellie passes through a long hallway. At the end of the passage, as Black hits the chorus like it’s the cannons in the 1812 Overture, Ellie emerges to the lights of 1965 London, a poster for Thunderball towering above her. This shot, this moment, is simply one of my favorite things in any movie of the past decade. I fell in love with it, just as Ellie falls in love with the world she always thought she belonged in—not loud, crass, belligerent 2021, as personified by the most off-putting students since the original Carrie, but the tuneful music, the elegant gowns and sophisticated movies that Ellie already knows. How many denizens of Classic Film Twitter would RUN, not walk down such a hallway if it existed.
But it’s not real, and it’s not exactly a dream, either. The audience already knows that like my mother’s cats—like all cats, of this I am certain—Eloise can see ghosts. She even spots one on her first miserable night out with her tacky classmates. And throughout the film, Ellie is shadowed by the ghost of her dead mother, who appears as an image in a mirror. Ellie’s vision of Soho, still carrying on its glittering business in some other dimension, is the logical (dream logic, Wright does not traffic in real-world logic) endpoint of her obsessions.
Now, while her other self sleeps, Ellie has taken on the form of a blonde beauty called Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy). Ellie both is Sandie, and stands outside Sandie, watching as this ambitious aspiring singer meets a pompadoured bad lot named Jack (Matt Smith, channeling Laurence Harvey at his wickedest). In a breathtaking feat of filmmaking (not CGI), Sandie/Ellie both dance with Jack, Sandie falling for Jack even as Ellie becomes hopelessly enamored with Sandie. The audience can see the evil curling around the edges of this whole sequence; not a man in it presents as anything other than on the make and deeply untrustworthy. But it’s Sandie and Swingin’ London that are the hook, two spirits that Ellie desperately wishes she could join. Dizzy with her infatuation, Ellie has forgotten what she surely knows and is about to experience: The past was never a paradise for everyone, and the 1960s could be devastatingly cruel.
Even so, night after night, through the dream-portal in her Soho bedsit, Ellie both trails and embodies Sandie. When Ellie spots the shabby remnants of the Rialto club she saw one night as Sandie, in an important sense the building is also a ghost, but not to Ellie. The world of 1960s London becomes ever more essential to her. As Ellie watches, Sandie realizes none of her dreams of singing, but instead becomes unhappy, then abused, then violent, and finally murderous.
But who murdered who in this world of 1965? Ellie can come up with all sorts of theories about Sandie, but the one thing she can’t and won’t do is stop visiting Sandie’s world. For those of us who feel kinship with the past and not just the present, that feeling of sisterhood down the decades is intensely familiar. We read about someone we identify with, even love, who met a fate she didn’t deserve. Handed a chance to make things different for her, we’d never turn it down.
Meanwhile, Wright offers other sightings from the past, by casting beloved actors from the period that obsesses Ellie. Rita Tushingham plays Ellie’s loving gran, and those huge eyes recall Tushingham’s dazzled stare in Smashing Time, another movie about innocents in big bad London. Terence Stamp appears as a neighborhood resident with no visible occupation, and thus plenty of time to turn up out of nowhere and scare the hell out of Ellie. Every time he does, the Stamp cheekbones and rakish grin bring back his beauty, the looks that were too perfect to trust in everything from The Collector to Far From the Madding Crowd. Finally, there’s Diana Rigg in her last role, and what a role Wright gave her, a fact that can’t be fully appreciated until the finale. As Ellie’s landlady, Mrs. Collins, Rigg at first merely seems old, stooped, and cranky. Until they sit down for tea, and Mrs. Collins seizes every opportunity for a sly joke at the expense of Ellie’s romantic notions of London. It’s that spirit of banter and mockery that calls up Rigg as the best Bond girl of them all, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. All these great actors are charmingly and recognizably themselves, but they have companions—all true stars bring our memories to a late performance.
Beautiful Sandie turns out to be anything but charming, but in the end (which I admire for, not despite, its insanity) we find out that she too is the ghost of a living person’s old self. I find that wonderfully apt. No one, no matter how big a skeptic, should scoff at the idea of being haunted by their own former life, much less by their lost chances.
* * * * * * * * * *
One day, after the funeral, after my family and my sister’s family had come and gone, and more than a month after I had arrived in Alabama, I took my mother’s will back to the state offices and met a clerk who was an actual human being. “Not sure why they told y’all there was a problem here,” she said pleasantly, as she stamped all the papers and I seethed behind my “Southern manners” face.
Rebecca and I were free to go. My mother had an absentee co-owner on the townhouse (long story) and it was not our responsibility to sell the place nor, we reasoned, to draw up any ghost-disclosure forms. As we drove away from Gardendale for the last time, my sister and I told each other that maybe a new owner would be good for the ghost. She’d never been happy there, and neither had we. Maybe someone else’s happiness could convince our ghost it was also time for her to leave at last.
Oh, Farran. *Last Night in SOHO* was my absolute favorite film of 2021. And I resisted seeing it because I don't like scary movies. This one was chilling and enchanting. Thank you for showcasing it so wonderfully with your own ghost story. That cold second bedroom actually sounds good to me as I'm dealing with hot flashes that I begrudgingly call "hot lingerers" since they don't flash away as quickly as I'd like them to.