The Scary of Sixty-First, the debut feature of podcaster Dasha Nekrasova, follows house hunters Noelle (Madeline Quinn, who shares a co-writing credit with Nekrasova) and Addie (Betsey Brown) who rent a strangely constructed, dirty but undeniably well-priced New York apartment. After moving in, Noelle is informed by an unnamed conspiracy theorist credited only as “The Girl” (played by the director) that the apartment was once owned by Jeffrey Epstein, who used the property for… exactly what you would likely think he did. As the story unfolds, Noelle becomes disturbingly obsessed with following The Girl down her conspiracy rabbit hole, while Addie seemingly falls under the spell of a supernatural force.
The Scary of Sixty-First is a film that was made to be divisive, and it certainly divided me. I find it both cringe-inducing, juvenile and, in most senses, of objectively bad quality. However, in many ways I also find it interesting, admirable even.
On the positive front, this is a gorgeous looking film most of the time, with some interesting visual choices made at times and the presence of nice 16mm cinematography. It also, unsurprisingly given its subject matter, is incredibly exploitative. This may sound like a critique, but unlike films which attempt to broadly emulate ’70s exploitation cinema – for example, the Tarantino/Rodriguez Grindhouse collaboration or James Bickert’s Dear God No! and the like, which toss in some familiar tropes, nastiness and deliberately ropey performances – this one may be as close to the real thing as a contemporary film can get. This is an authentic 21st Century exploitation film, for better or for worse. At times it’s also reminiscent of old school Eurosleaze genre cinema, taking clear influence from giallo. As the film goes on it begins to feel more and more like a film by B-movie maestro Jess Franco (although it doesn’t exactly feel like one of the good ones).
Another plus is that The Scary of Sixty-First, to use something of a crude term, has brass balls. It doesn’t use thinly veiled stand-ins for Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell, it names and shames, and revels in the fact. This, however, brings up what is probably Nekrasova’s biggest failing – she tries to comment on so much and loses focus to the point where this becomes a muddled mess. Not content to make a horror film condemning Epstein and his ilk, the film has to throw repeated and frequent jabs at both the rich and the poor, New Yorkers as a population, conspiracy theorists, millennials, generation Z, crystal obsessed pseudo-spiritualists and mumblecore, to name just the most centric and forefront of them.
The film clearly hates its characters, and it comes across as if the awkward, hyper-mumblecore-esque performances from the four lead characters is a deliberate means to this end, but a deliberately awkward and stilted performance is still awkward and stilted. On top of this, the script’s many attempts at humorous dialogue are shot down by the delivery: this includes the frequent use of slurs and the term “autistic” as an insult, which, whatever the intention behind them, just ends up reflecting pretty badly on the writers, and adds to the juvenile nature of the writing.
Almost everything about this screenplay feels like it was written a 15-year-old alt-kid on social media, doing everything they can to provoke and push buttons, no matter how ridiculous or in poor taste it may be. Although, yes, the film has brass balls, it still feels disingenuous. It’s as if, rather than simply daring to be provocative, Neksarova and Quinn have been daring each other to be provocative in a game of one-upsmanship.
Overall, The Scary of Sixty-First will have its fans, but it’s certainly destined to have a very polarising future. I imagine for most viewers the positives and negatives will be one and the same, depending on your approach. I don’t think this is a very good film, but I do think it’s admirable in many ways. Technically, there’s a hell of lot here to like, if not love. I’d also almost call it’s approach to the Epstein conversation brave, and the filmmakers clearly have conviction and stick to their guns. However, at the end of the day, it’s a mess – pure sleaze and edge without any character. The director’s Red Scare podcast has often been associated with the “dirtbag left,” and the term dirtbag definitely fits in with this new project, but I feel like for the right side of this film’s audience, that’s a huge sell in one single word.