By Thomas Puhr.
Nekrasova shows a willingness to tackle taboo subject matter in what is nominally a comedic genre exercise.”
The opening credits of The Scary of Sixty-First (2021) deftly blend elements of ‘60s and ‘80s horror. The pink, handwritten font – played over panning shots of Manhattan – instantly calls Rosemary’s Baby (1968) to mind, while Eli Keszler’s synth-heavy score smacks of any number of cheapo slashers. To her credit, first-time director Dasha Nekrasova wants to move beyond just imitating the classics (though she does this, too). She also seems interested in exploring how these tropes operate in what has become a very different New York. The results are inconsistent, but there’s no denying her ambition, keen visual eye, and acerbic humor.
We begin with friends Addie (Betsey Brown) and Noelle (Madeline Quinn, who shares writing credit with the director) touring a suspiciously-cheap apartment in the East Village. Despite a few misgivings (and obvious tensions simmering beneath the friendship), they rent the place, which comes pre-furbished with lots of strategically-placed mirrors, a mini grand piano, and a bloodstained mattress. These expository scenes have a nice bite, the friends’ deadpan verbal sparring (room-temperature White Claw is an “acquired taste,” according to Noelle) reminding me of Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel (2011). Unsurprisingly, his name pops up in the “special thanks” portion of the end credits.
The pair’s excitement proves short lived; soon after they move in, an amateur sleuth and hardcore conspiracy theorist, “The Girl” (Nekrasova), comes knocking with claims that their new home had been witness to “something extremely sinister.” Here, the film forks into two narratives: one following Noelle and The Girl’s drug-inspired investigation of the apartment’s past (which the trailer doesn’t reveal; so, neither will I), the other concerning Addie’s descent into madness/possible possession by the building’s spirits. The latter story features the film’s most engaging performance, but the former’s narrative beats and satirical digs are better executed. In this way, they more or less cancel one another out.
The Scary of Sixty-First is especially provocative (and, at times, cringingly funny) when it takes aim at our conspiracy theory-riddled times. The Girl, who fancies herself a hard-hitting investigator/activist (“I’m not like normal people,” she says, in one of my favorite bits of dialogue: “I’m obsessed with political struggle”), rambles about Pizzagate and suspects Addie is being targeted by MK-Ultra (even though she’s the one slipping speed into her and Noelle’s drinks). Elsewhere, a fun sequence at a magic shop (or “a magical apothecary,” as the owner impatiently clarifies) takes a jab at the resurgence of new age mysticism and crystal therapy among current twenty-somethings.
Addie’s story is comparatively straight-faced, her loneliness and isolation – abandoned by Noelle for a new friend; ignored by her halfwit boyfriend, Greg (producer Mark Rapaport) – depicted with some sincerity. She adopts a giggly, childish voice, converts her bedroom into a paganistic shrine to Prince Andrew, and sleepwalks through the dark Manhattan streets. Her physical, energetic performance (Brown really goes all in, unequivocally stealing the show) never quite sinks into caricature and is all the better for it. However, Nekrasova’s overreliance on repurposing iconic horror moments – one of Brown’s nocturnal wanderings baldly copies Isabelle Adjani’s notorious milk scene in Possession (1981) – mars the proceedings a bit.
Nekrasova also stumbles with depicting Noelle and Addie’s falling out, mostly because we don’t get to see much of their friendship before it falls apart. One may argue this is precisely the point – that they never really were friends in the first place – but when Noelle races against time to save her roommate’s soul, the stakes aren’t particularly high. The final twist, by extension, also lands with a thud (it doesn’t help that it borrows, verbatim, a key plot development from Eyes Wide Shut, 1999). But it’s easy to forgive this structural lopsidedness, thanks to a short runtime (80 minutes, including credits). I’m reminded of Tilman Singer’s Luz (2018) – another 16mm horror that stretches a razor-thin premise to feature length – though Singer’s debut exuded more confidence.
Still, there’s a lot to appreciate. The film is a pleasure to simply look at (New York never fails to look beautifully ominous on 16mm), and Nekrasova shows a willingness to tackle taboo subject matter in what is nominally a comedic genre exercise. The central conceit may strike some as glib, others as empowering. Either way, I admire her risk-taking and am intrigued to see what the writer-director does next. The film never entirely goes off the rails, and there’s an undeniable thrill to witnessing such a balancing act, despite (or perhaps because of) its messiness.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.