In Romy and Michele 2, the girls move into a possibly-haunted New York apartment previously owned by a very famous sex offender and strange things start to happen. I may have gotten that wrong, but Dasha Nekrasova’s debut feature The Scary of Sixty-First is full of vintage vibes and fascinating female dynamics. She directs, co-writes and stars in the film that channels Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession (among many other 70s and 80s cinema influences) while also attempting to comment on the prevalence of conspiracy theories in today’s world.
When rich girl Addie (Betsey Brown) and her apathetic bestie Noelle (Madeline Quinn, who co-wrote the film) score a great deal on a furnished apartment in the coveted Upper East Side, they immediately question the odd setup of the bedrooms. Addie’s room can only be accessed through the first bedroom and by a second door that opens to an ominous staircase. This doesn’t affect Noelle as she asserts her alpha by nabbing the first bedroom, and the girls proceed to move in. They drink room temperature White Claws as Addie rehearses her lines (she’s an actress, supposedly) and Noelle loafs around in her contented unemployment. The besties get by on Addie’s father’s money – we sense that he’s very much not involved in his daughter’s life but that there was perhaps some abuse earlier in their relationship. Addie doesn’t like to talk about it, and Noelle doesn’t care to ask. What follows is a descent into some very dark territory for Addie as her bedroom proves to be less than a safe space, and a cautionary tale of stranger danger as Noelle makes a toxic new friend.
The trailer for this film smartly scrambles its true premise; watching it will still allow a blind entry and I would suggest maintaining that blindness as much as possible before seeing the film. Going into this, I was surprised to see that the herd was much thinner than the last screening I’d attended. I have to wonder whether the subject matter was spoiled in synopses or whether Titane was the nail in the coffin for some. Regardless, the turnout would go on to accurately reflect the type of audience that will actually get something out of this film – a very small one.
For The Scary of Sixty-First is a satirical mystery-thriller about conspiracy theories, possession and the worst kind of sexual assault. The 70s and 80s influences are starkly apparent in the psychosexual themes as well as the haunting imagery of looming, gargoyle-decorated buildings whose secrets threaten the protagonists. Hunter Zimny’s grainy 16mm cinematography takes us back to a time of discomfort and yuckiness while very much staying in the now; the creaky cadences of the girls reek of too many hours with the Kardashians and their matter-of-fact opinions on social issues are as poorly examined as those of many liberal white women today. Nekrasova and Quinn do a wonderful job of holding a mirror up to the faces of the self-righteously progressive while also examining our lingering fascination with the nasty side of society.
One such scene that exemplifies this side follows a character displaced quite early on in the film. Addie’s possessed night walk to an abandoned residence gives Isabelle Adjani’s tunnel freakout a run for its money, swapping a roll-around in bile and mouth foam for femjaculate scent marking of the former resident’s initials. The shock factor drew nervous laughter from my fellow audience members that would slowly turn into speechless disgust as the intensity of Addie’s sexual depravity ramps up, and the potential reasons behind it reveal themselves.
But not all of the sexuality in this film is unpalatable. There’s a huge sense of lust and knowing objectification that’s present in the camera’s lingering on nude fishnets and fleshy parts of the thigh. The girls get so caught up with their speed-fueled research tangent about what may have happened in the apartment that they become consumed with each other as well. It’s a depiction of that common thing where you find yourself too friendly with someone too quickly, without really knowing anything about them. The danger is no longer just in the history of their lodgings but in the stranger lying next to them.
The film has the balls to play very dark concepts for comedic absurdity, resulting in some truly harrowing sequences involving masturbatory Royal Wedding accessories and speculatory suicide reenactments. A scene where the girls go to a metaphysical shop to ask its eccentric manager about some tarot cards found in the apartment pulls off the very difficult task of being both hilarious and foreboding at the same time. At times I wasn’t sure if it was okay to laugh, a tactic that’s carried through from the director’s prior work.
Some may remember Nekrasova from a viral moment in an InfoWars (a notoriously far-right conspiracy website) interview where, while dressed in a sailor fuku, she tells the aggressively hyperbolic interviewer that she has “worms in her brain”. It’s an iconic moment of a vocal fry burn that still holds up today, and it set the tone for the ‘dirtbag left’ podcast Nekrasova co-hosts, Red Scare. Having only listened to snippets from one episode (I chose the one where they unpack Demi Lovato’s bullshit and aptly compare her “perennial victim mentality” to that of Janice Soprano), I can understand some of the criticism directed at the podcast and Nekrasova herself. A former congress staffer described Red Scare as “when hot mean girls become public leftists” and there is definitely a nastiness in its spirit of political incorrectness. But what it also does is tap into a level of self-reflection sometimes lacking in the professionally woke. The same can be said about this film (to a degree).
The women of Sixty-First deride conspiracy theories and then fall victim to one themselves, a hypocrisy echoed in the paranoid plot points that escalate in the film’s final segment. But this is all done with an air of self deprecation – it’s Eyes Wide Shut with a knowing wink at the audience. The ambition in its last twenty or so minutes does outweigh the execution and I found myself frustrated at the clichés that the film falls back on. However, I do think there’s a certain “fuck you” brilliance to the approach that should be admired.
The Scary of Sixty-First is already proving to be incredibly polarising to audiences and it’s a very rare instance of both sides being equally justified in their perspectives. Many have pointed out the film’s clear influence from Polanski (both his films and his crimes) and while this will surely rub some people the wrong way, I have to commend Nekrasova on her audacity (in 2021) to not only broach these subjects, but to occasionally play them for giggles. 7/10
The Scary of Sixty-First comes out 16th December and there is a pre-recorded Q&A screening tonight with Dasha Nekrasova at Luna Leederville.