Berlin Film Festival 2021 Review: The Scary of Sixty-First ★★★

The opening credits sequence of actor and podcast host Dasha Nekrasova’s directorial debut The Scary of Sixty-First sets the tone for an Upper East Side contemporary horror, all creepy gargoyles and Eli Keszler’s beautifully disquieting score. That unsettling feeling sustains throughout the film, which from the first scene is established as a pitch-dark comedy, likely to go down well with midnight movie audiences.

“I am not rich, my family has money” says aspiring actress Addie (Betsey Brown) who has just moved into a luxurious, if rather sinister, uptown Manhattan apartment with her unemployed roommate Noelle (Madeline Quinn). It appears the place was abandoned in a hurry; it’s fully furnished, even the cupboards are filled with food, and there’s rotting meat in the fridge. The strained dynamics between this twenty-something codependent privileged duo, initially reminiscent of Harper and Allie in Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers’ Brooklyn set 2014 comedy Fort Tilden, is soon interrupted by the arrival of a mysterious young woman claiming to be a realtor, played by Nekrasova. The woman—who remains unnamed throughout and is listed only as The Girl in the end credits—confides in Noelle that she believes the apartment which her and Addie have just moved into was owned by convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Encouraged by The Girl, Noelle goes down an Epstein conspiracy theory wormhole with her, examining drone images of the late financier’s property on his private Little St. James Island for clues into what they believe is a ring of satanist “paedophilic corruption”. Noelle and The Girl become increasingly determined to discover what happened to Epstein, even going so far as to reenact the reported details of his suicide. Thrown together by their mission, the intensity between the women soon becomes sexual and they begin sleeping together.

Betsey Brown in Dasha Nekrasova’s The Scary of Sixty-First. USA 2020. © Stag Pictures.

Meanwhile Abbie, disturbed by night terrors, sleepwalks to Epstein’s New York townhouse, and appears to be possessed as her voice turns demonic midway through sex with her fatuous but sweet boyfriend Greg (Mark Rapaport), asking him to acknowledge that she’s only 13-years-old rather than 26. Later she’ll surround herself with press cuttings of Epstein’s friend Prince Andrew, rubbing herself sexually with some of the images. As The Girl puts it “Anglophilia is one thing, but paedophilia is another”.

You have to admire co-stars and co-writers Nekrasova and Quinn for their boldness in referencing real life figures and even using the exterior of Epstein’s former Manhattan home as a shooting location, which despite the film’s humour, creates an added layer of discomfort for the audience with the continuous marriage of factual horror and the Italian giallo inspired grisly thriller the film’s characters are experiencing.

Nekrasova’s cineliterate film has its foundations in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, though it is starkly different in form, with fine work by cinematographer Hunter Zimny shooting on 16mm and channelling a 70s horror vibe. The visually striking nightmarish red sequences in Abbie’s room are particularly effective, as is the stylishly shot blood-splattered finale.

With committed performances from its talented cast, The Scary of Sixty-First is a suitably uncomfortable satirical QAnon-theory-fuellled psychosexual horror that’s likely to spark some lively conversations.

By James Kleinmann

The Scary of Sixty-First had its world premiere at the 71st Berlin International Film Festival.

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