After hearing comparisons to Eyes Wide Shut shortly after the debut of The Scary of Sixty-First at the Berlinale Film Festival, my excitement level for this psychosexual horror thriller shot up immensely. That it did not live up to my lofty dreams speaks less about the quality than the actual style, which feels jammed somewhere between campy comedy and pretentious chiller. Enjoyment levels may be reliant on one’s level of knowledge about Jeffrey Epstein in the first place. My lack of insight on the subject matter at hand definitely put me at a detriment in grasping many of the film’s inside jokes. I think seeing the movie alongside the cast and director laughing along at every outrageous scenario made it infinitely more palatable and, at the very least, endlessly entertaining. But was the movie itself, presented by Rooftop Films, actually good?
An ominous opening with weird architectural zoom-ins of Jeffrey Epstein’s house sets the stage well, accompanied by a synthy score. Right off the bat, I could tell this was filmed in a retro 80s/90s style and on vintage 35mm film no less! Close friends Noelle (Madeline Quinn) and Addie (Betsey Brown) are moving into a new kitschy Manhattan apartment. A lovely courtyard, rooms connected with separate locks, and a broken piano greet them during their first walkthrough. The previous tenants have left the apartment something of a mess, and when Addie inquires about having cleaners come, they reply, “don’t you have a broom?”
After commuting and beginning the move-in process, the two share a celebratory drink together—but not before they discover a rotting ham with a dead rat inside of the fridge. Weird tarot cards in the bathroom, writhing-around nightmares, and deep scratches in the wall indicate something strange is afoot. Cue, The Girl (director and co-writer Dasha Nekrasova), who shows up at the apartment claiming to be investigating Jeffrey Epstein, “Pedophile Island,” and his sex cult of Elitists. It would appear that the previous tenant was none other than Epstein himself, who could very well have murdered/raped/sacrificed others right on their mattress! Noelle gets wrapped up in a lesbian love affair with The Girl… throw in Addie’s potential sex-demon possession and gyrating behavior, and you have yourself one seriously weird movie!
I was left questioning the level of exploitation that The Scary of Sixty-First is okay with exploring. Addie screams for her lover to “fuck me like I’m thirteen.” Flash cuts of Epstein are used during the finale to racket up tension. A scene filmed outside Epstein’s actual house where Addie fingers herself and rubs blood everywhere had me cringing. I may not be in the loop as much as some others, but a lot of this felt wrong and a disservice to the actual victims of his heinous exploits.
I did not realize there would be even the subtlest hint of comedy in the film, and to my surprise, The Scary of Sixty-First is far more comically-leaning than horror-adjacent. Betsey Brown’s commitment to thumb-sucking newspaper-humping, and Mark H. Rapaport as Addie’s dim-witted boyfriend, are both hilarious, and they both knew exactly the type of performances they wanted to deliver. Other times, I was not sure whether I was supposed to be laughing or not. CIA mind-control, casual use of a gay slur, and a head-scratching finale does not make it any more palatable, either.
During the Q&A, director Dasha Nekrasova revealed that The Scary of Sixty-First was originally birthed as a short film, epitomizing her and Quinn’s obsession with the Epstein chronicles. She also revealed a surprising and bizarre true story, where Malaysian factory workers were allegedly spirit-possessed and convulsing, that helped inspire the movie. I think maybe a short film would have been a better avenue to explore this fascination, minus the Epstein angle, as the Malaysian story seems intriguing in its own right.
The Scary of Sixty-First beckons you to join the elites when it premieres later this year theatrically, then on Shudder.