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Berlinale 2021: Giallo meets Jeffrey Epstein in “The Scary of Sixty-first”

The Scary of Sixty-first (Berlinale)

Dasha Nekrasova leaps out of the gate with an audacious, out-there horror debut as creepy as it is transgressive.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2021 Berlin Film Festival.)

Once upon a time, when a horror film was described as being “transgressive,” it indicated that it dealt with material that went far beyond the social mores of the time. Even fans of the genre were startled by what they were seeing in films like Psycho (1960), Night of the Living Dead (1968), and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). Nowadays, when a horror film is described that way, it’s just code for being super violent and nothing else. 

Although it certainly contains enough blood and grotesque imagery to qualify under the latter-day description of the word, The Scary of Sixty-First, the first feature from Dasha Nekrasova (co-host of the Red Scare podcast) is transgressive in the classic sense of the word, and all the better for it. Mixing together a canny blend of classic narrative and stylistic tropes with terrors of an all-too-real variety, this is one of the most audacious and provocative debuts in recent horror history. And it’s one that will leave even the hardcore fans knocked for a loop or two.

As the film opens, those fans may suspect that they are on familiar ground, beginning with an opening credits sequence featuring menacing bits of New York City architecture set against a score clearly inspired by ’70s-era giallo films. From there, they segue into a sequence in which two attractive young women rent an impressive Upper East Side apartment for a suspiciously cheap rate. Even in these early scenes, something seems off, and not just because of the moldering food in the fridge.

Although supposedly longtime friends, neurotic would-be actress Addie (Betsey Brown) and Noelle (Madeline Quinn, who co-wrote the script with Nekrasova) don’t really seem to be that compatible with each other—even while cleaning out the aforementioned fridge, there is an undeniable sense of tension between them. As for the apartment, it’s a bit on the weird side as well; there seem to be far more doors with locks than one might expect, and a couple of creepy-looking tarot cards soon turn up as well.

The Scary of Sixty-first (Berlinale)
The Scary of Sixty-first (Berlinale)

They’ve hardly moved in when Noelle, lazing about while Addie is off with her dopey boyfriend, lets in a woman (Nekrasova) who turns up bearing a shocking secret: Tthe apartment apparently used to belong to the late real-life monster Jeffrey Epstein, one of the various places where he may have held some of the women he trafficked into sexual slavery.

This revelation intrigues Noelle—it certainly explains the cheap rent—and before long, she and the interloper, who is only referred to in the credits as “The Girl,” hit their computers and the streets in order to pursue any number of Epstein-related conspiracy theories—at one point, they even become convinced that they have spotted Ghislaine Maxwell walking down the street—and a romance of sorts also begins to develop between them.

Meanwhile, Addie has been pointedly left out of all of this but Noelle and The Girl are so wrapped up in their mutual obsession that they fail to notice that she may be even more enmeshed in the mystery than they are. First, she begins having bizarre psychosexual nightmares that are dismissed as being related to her own personal traumas. Then, while having sex with her boyfriend, she takes on the voice of a young girl and initiates a scenario where they are having sex on a private jet and she is. . . very young. Eventually, her previous interest in the British royal family takes on a new dimension as she begins violently masturbating to (and with) photos of Prince Andrew. 

This all sounds like an unholy mixture of the grotesque and absurd that couldn’t possibly work as anything other than as a sick joke. But as crazy as it sounds, it comes together startlingly well in the end. Nekrasova is clearly a fan of horror cinema and indeed, one can find allusions to past favorites ranging from things like the old school favorite The Seventh Victim (1943) to notable selections from the filmographies of the likes of Dario Argento and, ironically, Roman Polanski strewn throughout. (That said, the most effective of these tributes is a callout to Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999) that is hilarious and chilling in equal measure.)

The Scary of Sixty-First… is transgressive in the classic sense of the word, and all the better for it.

However, she and Quinn are less interested in paying tribute to their favorites as they are in using such films as a leaping-off point to explore both the horrific particulars of the Epstein case. More boldly, they explore the weird comfort that people can derive from becoming enmeshed in conspiracy theories—the idea being that the notion of everything going to Hell is more palatable if it seems to be following some kind of template.

Instead of using the obsessions of Noelle and The Girl serve as the focus of cheap jokes, the screenplay presents them with a certain empathy even as they go further into the rabbit hole. This aspect is helped to a great extent by the performances by Nekrasova and Quinn. Brown is just as good as Addie, a high-wire act of a performance that is always fascinating to watch.

Even when The Scary of Sixty-first goes into the home stretch, it manages to stick the landing instead of ladling on the gore while ham-fistedly setting up a sequel. I recognize that the conceit of the film is so outre it may end up putting off more viewers than it attracts. After all, most people go to films of this sort to escape the horrors of the real world, not to face them head-on. Those who skip out on it do so at their own peril; this is the furthest thing from a crass piece of exploitation. Funny, stylish, gruesome and always unnerving, this is a real keeper, the announcement of a major new talent in the horror filmmaking field.

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Peter Sobczynski

Peter Sobczynski is a Chicago-based filmcritic whose work can be seen at RogerEbert.com, EFilmcritic.com and, well, here. He is also on the board for the Chicago Critics Film Festival and the Chicago Film Critics Association. Yes, he once gave four stars to “Valerian” and he would do it again.