Dasha Nekrasova’s debut contains daggers aimed at Jeffrey Epstein, the royal family, and any sensitive viewer sensitivities, but it’s hilarious and angry enough to let it slide.
There is a narrow line between a good concept and a dreadful one carried out with complete conviction, and “The Scary of Sixty-First” dances with reckless, malicious abandon down that edge. Dasha Nekrasova’s bold, courageous, morbidly humorous debut movie is based on a notion that may have been created as a dare or a prank: Two female friends move into a bizarrely cheap flat on Manhattan’s Upper East Side that turns out to be owned by the late pedophile billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, and eventually get overwhelmed by its extremely terrible vibes. As you might expect, good taste is not on the plan here. But beneath Nekrasova’s film’s edgelord provocations and gleefully cheap B-movie stylings is a dark, seething fury that’s no joke: it’s without filter or apology as a reflection on the abuse that strong men mete out without appropriate consequence.
Needless to say, the commercial prospects for a microbudget horror comedy centered on a pedophilia conspiracy are less than stellar. Nonetheless, “The Scary of Sixty-First” is expected to make ripples on the festival circuit after its virtual debut in Berlin’s Encounters sidebar, turning enough heads with its button-pushing, of-the-moment anger and no-sacred-cows satire to start establishing its own tiny cult. For Nekrasova, best known as a co-host of the equally risky podcast “Red Scare,” it’s a debut that, beyond its immediate current fire, offers much for the future — backing up its loud mouth with scruffy filmmaking flair and a true, dedicated sense of genre. Giallo and grindhouse tropes coexist in a mumblecore framework, with overt references to Kubrick and (appropriately) Polanski tossed in for good measure. Nekrasova’s voice, on the other hand, penetrates forcefully through all that referential cacophony.
The clanging, doomy synthesizers of Eli Keszler’s music make it apparent from the start that we’re at least partially in the grasp of Dario Argento, yet Hunter Zimny’s hazy Kodak lensing trades in muted millennial colours — and the New York we’re thrown into is pure Lena Dunham. Aspiring actor Addie (Betsey Brown) and her college friend Noelle (Madeline Quinn, also the film’s co-writer) are introduced in the midst of a stressful Manhattan apartment hunt that has yielded unlikely paydirt: a roomy, furnished duplex on East 61st Street that they should not be able to afford in a million years. Sure, the décor is a touch off (what’s with those mirrors on the ceiling? ), and the realtor is unusually evasive when they inquire about having the property cleaned. But, hey, a bargain is a bargain, so the young ladies sign the lease, move in, and celebrate their fantastic new high life.
The honeymoon phase lasts only a day since the new environment makes the roommates fractious and tetchy around one other, and the first night’s sleep produces restless dreams. Meanwhile, further exploration of the flat reveals human scratches on the walls and fading bloodstains on the mattress. A forceful, unidentified guest (Nekrasova) claims to know what’s going on: Under the guise of working for the realtor, she barges in and informs a perplexed Noelle that she is living at one of Epstein’s previous party houses, where young girls have been kept, raped, and perhaps died.
It’s unclear what the stranger hopes to achieve with her amateur research – she’s convinced Epstein was killed, but isn’t most of the internet? — Noelle, on the other hand, is quickly drawn into it. In no time, a passionate romance blossoms between the two; how sex in that specific bed can be a turn-on is one of the many unsolved mysteries here.
Addie, for one, would be concerned about these developments if she wasn’t going through some troubling changes herself: She appears to have been possessed by the spirit (or at least the perceived spirit) of one of Epstein’s adolescent victims, manifesting itself in erratic, manic bursts of immature sexual expression. Her gormless lover (a delightfully deadpan Mark Rapaport) is taken aback when she throws up mid-intercourse, but he escapes unscathed:
Her frantic masturbation in the symbolic presence of male authority, whether at the menacing entryway of an Epstein house or before a chintzy shrine of royally branded Prince Andrew artifacts, is depicted in the film’s most absurd, out-to-offend moments. At such moments, some viewers may reasonably tune out. Others will be rewarded with a gruesome denouement that contextualizes such parodic sexploitation as the stuff of male desire, while an ambiguous final rug-pull elegantly refers to the gaslighting of many a victim in this domain.
As far as humor goes, this is about as pleasant and soothing as a clean dose of turpentine. The fact that we laugh at all is a tribute to Nekrasova and Quinn’s delirious, almost artistically cruel language — which, among other targets, brutally puts Britain’s royal family in the firing line, making the most recent series of “The Crown” appear like a Buckingham Palace PR effort.
Those outraged royalists who petitioned Netflix for a content warning may be surprised by Noelle’s impassioned portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II as a “batty old [expletive]” who orchestrated Epstein’s death to protect her family’s image: Whether you laugh or gasp, such online humor are essential to a work that pushes its audience to consider how much we collectively defend the privileged just because of their position. “The Scary of Sixty-First,” a little film packed with enormous, reckless bombs, will undoubtedly enrage some people — Though, it smirkingly advises, any rage aimed towards it would be better focused elsewhere.