Berlinale FF 2021

The Scary of Sixty-First review – giallo meets Jeffrey Epstein in frenzied conspiracy thriller

The ghost of the American financier haunts the characters - and the viewer - in this 70s inspired throwback of millennial alienation

“Anglophilia is one thing, but pedophilia?” says The Girl (Dasha Nekrasova), realising there's a more sinister side to Addie's (Betsey Brown) collection of Prince Andrew memorabilia than sheer royalism. This tension between obsession and desire is central to Nekrasova's directorial debut, which carries an irresistible premise: two friends, Addie and Noelle (Madeline Quinn, who co-writes with Nekrasova) move into an Upper East Side apartment, only to discover that its previous occupant was the billionaire pedophile Jeffrey Epstein. Investigation and possession ensue.

With a setup like this, it would be easy to write off The Scary of Sixty-First as a piece of provocative garbage – the same kind often peddled by Nekrasova on her popular podcast, Red Scare, which recently made headlines by selling ISIS-themed merchandise. But this film is too cine-literate, thoughtful, and well-researched to simply dismiss out of hand.

[Read more reviews from the Berlin International Film Festival 2021]

Shown around by a shady Realter (Stephen Gurewitz), the apartment carries an immediate sense of dread, with separate entrances and locks on every door; one bedroom has a long mirror bolted to the ceiling; and there's a shower curtain straight out of Psycho (Van Sant, of course, not Hitchcock). While Noelle seems flippant towards the bad aura, Addie immediately begins having nightmares that take her out of her body and into that of one of Epstein’s victims. Either the Ambien everyone's popping non-stop seems to be having some bad side effects, or the apartment’s dark past really is haunting her.

While the early-going resembles an ersatz Polanski thriller, all paranoia in the apartment, the introduction of The Girl snaps the film into focus. She presents herself as a vigilante detective, but Nekrasova plays her as a strung-out conspiracy theory nut, who trawls the internet for clues. By giving us little backstory, or even a name, her character stands in for millennial alienation from power structures. The evil that appears everywhere in society taunts her, from the close ups on the eyes of various gargoyles around Central Park, to the appearance of locations from Eyes Wide Shut, perhaps the definitive film about a sinister sex-cult.

Nekrasova ironises the conspiracists, too. “I'm not like normal people… I'm obsessed with political struggle,” The Girl explains after a drug-fuelled sex scene. Across a number of disturbing sequences, The Scary of Sixty-First draws a direct link between sexual pleasure and events like the Epstein suicide. Images from tabloid journalism and the corners of the Epstein conspiracy are not-so-subtly replicated, while cinematographer Hunter Zimney explores New York’s architecture as a conduit for power and desire.

For all that the film fools around with aesthetic references – the soft-focus pinks and purples evoke the Italian “giallo” films of the 70s – Nekrasova taps into an essential idea: Jeffrey Epstein is a new horror that now haunts our cultural memory. His link to demonic cults and other invisible powers that very nearly came into view has made him a new kind of villain – one that lives on through news, media, and memes. While the public locations of Epstein's life and crimes are as easy to access as this film shows them to be, The Scary of Sixty-First suggests we're all trapped by our proximity to images of terror.

The Scary of Sixty-First was screened as part of the Berlin International Film Festival 2021. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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