THE SCARY OF SIXTY-FIRST (Berlinale 2021) – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

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At its best, horror cinema has a totally unique ability to strip back the way we soften trauma by commodifying it – often through the fantastic possibilities that the supernatural in particular affords – in a way where we can confront real-world horror stories of a magnitude that even language itself struggles to articulate. Of course to describe the crimes of Jeffrey Epstein as a “nightmare” instantly feels like a feeble, almost grotesque understatement, but even for those of us looking on as the still-unfolding story of his monstrosity continues to be revealed, the Epstein saga leaves a violent, visceral stain on our psyches. We can’t even begin, then, to imagine the impact of those whose lives were directly impacted.

By using the Epstein story as the foundation for Dasha Nekrasova’s debut feature, The Scary of Sixty-First, as a horror movie itself – riffing aesthetically and tonally on 70s and 80s horror cinema especially – it feels almost a natural fit, the genre possibly the only kind of cinema properly equipped to tackle a nightmare of this magnitude.

With its recent world premiere on the Encounters section at the 2021 Berlinale, the film follows two young women Noelle (Madeline Quinn, who also co-wrote the film) and Addie (Betsey Brown) who fluke the real estate deal of a lifetime, a dream duplex on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It is only after moving in, however, that they discover that their home’s previous owner was Epstein who used it, as one character notes, as an “orgy flophouse”.

The two girls respond in dramatically different ways. Noelle becomes increasingly obsessed, and along with the young woman who told her about this history (an unnamed character credited as The Girl, played by Nekrasova herself), they together become Nancy Drew like conspiracy theorists who fall increasingly into paranoid obsession, with the help of a little amphetamine habit on the side. Even more shockingly, the already unstable Addie explodes in hyper-sexualized, manic frenzies, marked by an infantilized display of unrestrained carnality focused explicitly around Prince Andrew; imagining herself as a 13-year-old girl, when her idiot boyfriend Greg (Mark Rapaport) freaks out at what he reads as kinky pedophile-infected roleplay during sex and throws her out, Addie decides – with the help of her Andrew and Fergie collection of kitsch memorabilia – to satisfy her sexual desires with more of a DIY approach, resulting in some of the film’s most memorable, shocking and deliberately unsubtle images.

While an experienced actor herself (fans of Succession will surely recognize her, for starters), Belarusian-American Nekrasova is perhaps most immediately known for her work on the podcast Red Scare, broadly tethered to the so-called “dirtbag left”. Red Scare in no way is an easy fit for the milquetoast discursive terrain of online cultural or political rhetoric, and the primary attraction to the podcast is precisely how much they muddy the waters of discourse – they say what they think, and no subject too sacred or off-limits for critique, mockery or dismissal. In many ways, this is a useful way to frame where The Scary of Sixty First is coming from: this is a film (and filmmaker) who clearly has no desire whatsoever to churn out a politely spooky morality tale to appeal to the broadest common denominator, and the film is all the better for it.

Nekrasova lived very close to the Metropolitan Correctional Center where Epstein died on 10 August 2019, and she and Quinn began work on the screenplay when feeling completely overwhelmed not just by the enormity of the horror of the Epstein story itself, but how it stood as a broader metaphor for the absolute, unchallenged power of the ruling elite. Shot on 16mm, the film is a critique of this world of power and corruption as a whole and is explicitly influenced by what will be the oft-cited, inescapable ur-text, Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. Aside from sharing a broader theme of being sucked into a conspiracy mindset where exposing the powerful is the ultimate goal, Kubrick’s film also gets lovingly referenced at a key moment (as does Rosemary’s Baby, if only through its almost identical title card, and shared conspiratorial vision of a New York City where a Satanic elite reign supreme).

The Scary of Sixty-First is an exploitation film in the tradition of films such as Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 and Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left, movies which through their raw fury alone can make statements more politely-minded cinema could never equal. This question of exploitation is arguably most sensitive when the film makes references to Virginia Giuffre; although not named as such, the treatment of this very real person can be described as unsettling at best.

But the flip side to this is to look at the film as a brazenly undisguised window into the conspiracy theorist mindset; it maps out the paranoia, the manic consumption, the dizzying jumps in logic and intellectual cart-before-the-horseism in a way that is both disturbing, revealing, and perhaps most of all, almost casually naturalized. The Scary of Sixty-First reveals how this is not some niche outsider headset, but something we are all potentially susceptible to; it reveals the way we consume news stories like this like breakfast cereal, a hobby that sometimes gets out of control. We watch stories like Giuffre’s unfold like we’re watching horror films – aroused observers, locked, loaded and ready for thrills – so why not make a literal horror film out of it to expose our monstrosity, our own gleeful susceptibility to swallow the commodification of human suffering and make a jigsaw puzzle out of it?

What makes The Scary of Sixty-First so remarkable is just how actively it defamiliarizes this mass, unbridled desire to reduce actual real life horror stories to the grotesque pantomime of popular mythology – be it conspiracy theories, horror movies, or both. Stories like Epstein’s swirl around the mediasphere in such a heavily mediated, abstract way, and this film – as deliberately provocative as it is – offers us so excessively and over-the-top an abstraction that we are actively forced stop and ask the question we rarely address when we spend six hours doom-surfing news on social media at night as we quietly tut and shake our heads: what are the ethics of consuming such a horrendous real life story as an entertainment commodity?

The Scary of Sixty-First made me uncomfortable at times, and I am grateful for this discomfort. The story that inspired this film is dangerous, frightening, ugly stuff, and to see it treated as such – in the shape of a literal horror movie – exposes and critiques the broader ways we consume real life horror stories like the Epstein abuse and underage sex trafficking scandal. Nekrasova is no fool, and The Scary of Sixty-First does exactly what horror does best: it gives us a way of speaking about the very real nightmares of the world we live in when we struggle to find the words.

Image © Stag Pictures

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a multi award-winning film critic from Melbourne, Australia. She was an editor at Senses of Cinema from 2015 to 2018, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic for ABC Radio in Australia, She has written for Film International, Diabolique Magazine, Vulture, Overland, The Big Issue and her own website, The Blue Lenses. She has written eight books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema and co-edited collections on Elaine May, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, Peter Strickland, and Alice in Wonderland in film. She frequently contributes commentaries, liner notes and video essays to home entertainment releases from companies such as Arrow Video, Kino Lorber, Eureka Entertainment, Second Sight and Severin Films. She is a Research Fellow at RMIT University and an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).