Director: Dasha Nekrasova
Stars: Madeline Quinn, Dasha Nekrasova, Betsey Brown
I’m admittedly late-to-the-party getting words down on The Scary of Sixty-First, which I first saw during the sleepy holiday period at the end of 2021 and then lost all sight of. Evidently it hit streaming in the UK rather quietly in the spring, but this week sees a fully-fledged home release stuffed with extras thanks to the folks at Fractured Visions. Effectively acting as a second release – and in time for spooky season too – this welcome arrival prompted a revisit and confirmed my suspicion; that this stands alongside the similarly no-budget We’re All Going to the World’s Fair as one of the most original – and divisive – horror movies in recent years.
First-time feature filmmaker Dasha Nekrasova coquettishly courts controversy here with her “too-soon!” usage of the scandals surrounding Jeffrey Epstein and (to a lesser degree) Prince Andrew. Shot in the dwindling days of 2019 BC (Before COVID), The Scary of Sixty-First is a deliberately reactionary piece of work; a thirsty rush from Nekrasova to capitalise on the then-very-much-present news cycle surrounding Epstein. She comments here on both that hubbub and a wider cultural hunger for true crime as popcorn entertainment fodder. From tabloid clickbait to the slew of Netflix Original docuseries designed to make real-world horrors digestible, bingeable obsessions. Only months after shooting Tiger King would become internationally ubiquitous. One can imagine Nekrasova sitting back, arms folded in satisfaction at yet another example of our collective gluttony… and joining in with the world’s insatiable, ravenous behaviour at the same time.
Meet Addie (Betsey Brown) and Noelle (Madeline Quinn), two young women who luck upon a reasonably priced apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side; a veritable contradiction in terms. It’s not too long before they realise that the property was once owned by the disgraced Epstein, a discovery that coincides with increasingly disturbed and paranoiac behaviour exhibited by Addie. This includes but is not limited to acts of public masturbation at the site of other Epstein properties, childlike exclamations and obsessive conspiracy theorising (one element wholly indulged by Noelle).
With a willfully obnoxious brand of dark humour, The Scary of Sixty-First mines a real-life tragedy for its queasy, scuzzy, lo-fi assault. The picture looks satisfyingly grubby, recalling Abel Ferrara’s early New York pictures but, like Ferrara, twinning this aesthetic with enough technical nous to make said images look beautiful (sucker as I am for 16mm). Those eager to dismiss the film would claim a basic lack of competency, but I disagree. Rough around the edges, certainly, there are a number of occasions on which Sixty-First shows an unflashy dexterity, particularly in the camera usage. All part of what feels to me like a preconceived and intentional set of stylistic choices both budgetarily accessible and warmly indebted to the roots of exploitation filmmaking (it’s not uncommon to the aesthetic found in Ti West’s similarly indebted The House of the Devil).
And Sixty-First is exploitative. It’s exploitative of its subject matter, and of its young (but not too young!) stars. Nekrasova can count herself among them, playing as she does the coyly credited character of ‘The Girl’, an amateur sleuth who wears tight-fitting business attire like a uniform and who spreads the poison of rumour in the air, instigating Addie and Noelle’s rabbit-hole adventures down spirals of conjecture and – possibly – possession.
Another key reference point here (although not in any formal sense) is Stanley Kubrick and specifically Eyes Wide Shut. Fans of that film will get a particular kick out of the final scene here; a laugh-out-loud moment for cineastes (I’d argue, also, that the very first scene has it’s own little Easter egg as well). Both films share a sense of wintry conspiracy in and around New York, as well as parallel senses of artifice in how their respective stories are assembled and told. The myopic sense of obsession exhibited in the film also feels slyly cognisant of Kubrick’s own methodology, adding a gossamer metatextual level.
Eyes Wide Shut isn’t the sole point of reference within Sixty-First. Far from it. The opening title colour and font selection is pure Rosemary’s Baby (a connection that draws its own set of unsavoury associations). But neither is it a movie solely beholden to the legacies of others. By attacking the Epstein case as full-throatedly as it does, Sixty-First brazenly asserts its own status as an outlier in the contemporary horror field. If anything it swims against the current with a seemingly flippant take on trauma. Such abrasions to consensus need to manifest somehow, but this isn’t a case of Nekrasova picking an arbitrary button-pushing subject. There’s a specific sense of enquiry happening here too; into a prevalent culture within the rich and unaccountable, and how that trickles down into the consciousness of the lower classes, infecting and preoccupying (see, for instance, the crude video game played by Addie’s boyfriend; a supposedly acceptable variant on the crimes being scrutinised). Noelle and Addie are misfits in their new surroundings, places haunted by both the aristocracy and the victims of their misdeeds. Does this make them especially susceptible?
The decidedly offbeat humour will attract as many as it repels, precisely because of its edgelord tendencies to laugh in the face of absolute ugliness. The comedy is not restricted to droll line deliveries (“The British are so cucked by the Royal Family you have no idea”) and behavioural observations, but also emerges in performance choices and the tonal clashes between knowing frivolousness and the self-serious, operatic classical compositions of Rachmaninoff and Mozart that dot the soundtrack.
Like the aforementioned We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, Sixty-First mostly skirts the recognisable topography of the horror movie (‘scares’, jolts, crescendos, whatever), instead opting for something less easily set within preconceived boundaries and less obviously satisfying. Yet I loved it from the start. Loved it’s sense of grotty, punk, puckish, sapphic irreverence. A kind of gleeful, trivialised vulgarity. Approached with both a sense of intelligence and humour, it’ll encourage your own fascination into its clashing sensibilities. And, as detachment from the topic grows, I suspect so will it’s audience. I hope so.