Two young women move into an impossibly available Upper East Side Manhattan apartment, only to discover that it was once utilized by (dum dum dum) the dead child-trafficking mogul Jeffrey Epstein. That’s the grotesquely button-pressing premise of The Scary Of Sixty-First, the bold but uneven debut feature from actor-podcaster-director Dasha Nekrasova. This is clearly a film with no interest in making friends—a proud provocation made in the sturdy spirit of ’70s exploitation movies. Nekrasova borrows from the best, courting comparisons to more highbrow pictures like Eyes Wide Shut and The Tenant. But she clearly started with an aim to get a rise out of people, and working backwards from there resulted in some slapdash storytelling.
The movie feels on brand for Nekrasova, who cohosts the “dirtbag leftist” Red Scare podcast, where the r-word flies freely and Sandy Hook denier Alex Jones shows up for giggles and photo ops. Though being winkingly offensive for the lolz is a phase many blessedly grow out of after high school, Nekrasova has turned it into a shtick. In theory, it could be a fantastic fit for horror.
The pair’s disdain for a generation of self-appointed web sleuths with no self-awareness comes out in the dialogue between their heroines, college buds Addie (Betsey Brown) and Noelle (Madeline Quinn). “Reddit’s for bottom-feeders, but there’s some really good threads,” Noelle mutters, staring at her laptop screen. Addie is the spiritual type, hooked on crystals and sage bundles that make her vulnerable to a supernatural invasion. She has boundary issues and acts childish—cooing baby-voiced at her boyfriend through her fingertip like a pathetic millennial bastardization of The Shining’s Danny Torrance—even before she’s possessed by the spirit of an an underage trafficking victim.
Everyone, including Addie’s beta boyfriend Greg (Mark Rapaport), is glued to their screens—a tech dependency Nekrasova previously explored via her starring role in the indie Wobble Palace. The arrival of the nameless Girl (Nekrasova) catalyzes a tumble into political obsession, with the same blasé unawareness. This mysterious character brings up Pizzagate and feeds Noelle an Ambien that’s really the Holden Caulfield contempt for phonies in pill form. (Whole thinkpieces could be written on the significance of the capsule’s colors.) “The important thing is that we’re awake,” the Girl sighs.
As Addie’s visibly wet post-masturbation fingertips glide pleasurably along Epstein’s monogram outside his apartment building, you realize that there’s still something forbidden about desperate, wanton female sexuality in movies. Nekrasova uses the trappings of horror and giallo (see: the traces of Francesco Barilli’s 1974 gem The Perfume Of The Lady In Black and its paranoid camerawork) to enable as much of it as possible. There comes a moment about 40 minutes into the movie when Addie’s semi-possessed gyrations give way to an intense physicality. Tonguing Prince Andrew’s photo one moment (enjoy that Epstein Google spiral, if you haven’t already) and screaming expletives the next, Brown communes with Possession’s Isabelle Adjani—both actors draw power and rage seemingly bigger than their wispy figures would ever allow. Brown is more than compelling enough to hold the frame, and her Addie is the only character of interest in the movie.
Real crime scene images of Epstein and the circumstances surrounding his death briefly flutter by during an investigative montage. It’s about as much venom as Scary spares for the disgraced pedophile. Was he simply the most effective lightning rod around which Nekrasova could build a movie? (Why, with an Epstein angle, you can have your mentally unstable character beg her boyfriend to make love to her “like I’m 13 years old!”) The film’s most successful shock value comes from a scene that juxtaposes fugue-state masturbation with an attempted recreation of Epstein’s alleged manner of death, essentially forcing an autoerotic asphyxiation onto the viewer via editing.
The offenses, both visual and sonic, are copious. Some strike true; menstrual fluid is still fairly taboo on screen these days, and this movie practically fingerpaints with the stuff. Putting shock in for shock’s sake is a staple of the classic exploitation film, so it’s not an automatic black mark against the movie. But there’s just not enough humor, tension, or character to lend all this gleeful offensiveness any real weight. Much of the slim runtime is spent in the space between midnight-movie provocations, waiting for the story to coalesce into something raw and powerful. It never quite gets there.
Filming the nocturnal streets of New York, cinematographer Hunter Zimny channels the twinkling trees and ominous night of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut—a point of reference justified by the sexual and occult elements of the story. As the sleuthing continues into the history of the apartment and Epstein’s trafficking, Eli Keszler’s pounding score raises the politi-thriller vibes. Nekrasova is tapping into the New Hollywood defeatism of raging bulls like Brian De Palma and Francis Ford Coppola. Epstein, Prince Andrew, the Clintons, Pedophile Island—it’s all too big and too powerful to overcome, and those who go down the rabbit hole come back defeated, if they come back at all.
But when your characters don’t care about much and have no redeeming qualities, it’s hard to imprint an authentic sense of drive on them. By the end of Coppola’s The Conversation (another film about the dangers of messing with systems bigger and badder than yourself), Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul is a broken man precisely because he put so much of himself into the chase. There’s no such devastation or urgency here, because the characters are airheads, their descent a trollish shrug. The Scary Of Sixty First cuts, but not very deeply; it’s all blade and no handle, a prankish flesh wound of a thriller.