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Shudder Secrets: The Scary at Sixty-First: One Wild Rabbit Hole

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Addie (Betsey Brown) and Noelle (co-writer Madeline Quinn) are stoked when they find an apartment in the Upper East Side at a steal. Yet, something seems off about the place and their friendship, too. Like a lot of 20 somethings, their lives are at a crossroads. Even if they’re initially thrilled by the prospect of moving in together, their friendship is at a turning point. One appears ready to move on, while the other doesn’t, clinging to the past and a relationship well past its prime.

At first, director Dasha Nekrasova’s The Scary of Sixty-First feels like a mumblecore movie about two people trying to figure out their lives. Both seem rudderless, just trying to take it a day at a time. However, the film quickly morphs into an urban thriller mixed with conspiracy theories fit for the QAnon, Post-Epstein world that we’re all living in, where nothing makes sense and one YouTube video leads to another and another.

The Shudder exclusive is dizzying at times, but at its best moments, it speaks to the dangers of conspiracy theories, paranoia, and a reality where the very nature of truth is often questioned.

One Part Urban Thriller

Initially, The Scary at Sixty-First feels like an urban thriller cut right out of the 1960s or early 70s. Polanski and De Palma’s influence is undeniable here. Something sinister and menacing, a-la Rosemary’s Baby or Repulsion, just may lurk around the next corner. Evening the opening pink credits and synth music feel like something straight out of 1970. The city and apartment building immediately become a character, a force even, with tight shots of the stone apartment building and sweeping shots of NYC.

This off-kilter tone intensifies after Noelle and Addie’s initial encounter with the realtor (Stephen Gurewitz). Something feels off about him. When Addie asks about hiring cleaners, he asks, why, before adding, “Don’t you have a broom?” It’s an unnerving and sexist comment. You also get the feeling that he’s hiding something. Why else would the apartment be so cheap and why does he act so weird at the mention of cleaning?

Further, the apartment has door after door after door. One room leads to another after another, which is strange. So many Manhattan apartments are closet-sized. Meanwhile, various rooms have mirrors on the ceilings, while some of the doors only lock from one side. Talk about some red flags. Everything about the place feels uncanny. Of course, since this is a horror movie, the women ink the lease and move in. It turns out, however, being roomies is much more challenging than being friends.

A Strained Friendship

On paper, moving in with your bestie always seems like a good idea, until, well, it isn’t. Being a roommate is hard. Noelle detests Addie’s oafish boyfriend, Greg (Mark H. Rapaport), who frequently makes stupid comments and sexist jokes. However, Addie often comes across as clingy. During their first night in the new place, for instance, she asks Noelle if they can sleep together, not in a sexual way, but simply as friends.

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Her co-dependence comes from past trauma, referenced more than once. Her wealthy father sexually abused her. She refuses to ask him for money, despite Noelle’s insistence. Noelle even accuses Addie of acting like a victim because she loves it. Ouch. Addie, however, declares herself a survivor. You also can’t blame her for refusing to ask for her dad’s help, no matter how wealthy and powerful he is. By this point, it’s clear this movie isn’t about a haunted apartment building. There’s more going on.

Tensions worsen when Noelle confesses that she doesn’t know how long she’ll stay in the place. She understands their lives and friendships are at a crossroads. This is a genuine and believable portrayal of friendship. People change, even when they just signed a lease together. Addie wanted to keep the place for a while, but Noelle’s bored, ready to move on.

When a Stranger Shows Up

The film’s first act grounds itself in reality. It centers around Noelle and Addie’s strained friendship. Indeed, the apartment feels off, but the movie doesn’t get super weird until a stranger shows up, played by Nekrasova. Suddenly, the film becomes an urban thriller laced with conspiracy theories.

The nameless woman explains to Noelle that she’s investigating Jeffrey Epstein’s death. Like many, she’s convinced he didn’t kill himself in a jail cell. She’s also certain that the apartment once belonged to him. She shows up and won’t leave, befriending Noelle, to Addie’s dismay. Suddenly, Addie is pushed out of the picture, into the arms of Greg, who doesn’t want anything to do with her after a super strange sex scene that turns him off and for good reason, too.

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Noelle and the stranger bond over conspiracy theories. They watch one YouTube video after another. Heck, there’s even mention of “PIzzagate.” Few films have really captured the chaos of our era, this constant feeling that reality’s bending, while the truth is constantly questioned. Yet, there are also major warning signs here. Noelle and the stranger become like online true believers, volleying one conspiracy theory after the other. The longer they hang out, the more they plunge into the depths of online videos and Reddit threads. I’m surprised they didn’t wait at an airport for JFK to show up. Nothing is too far-fetched for these two. Their grip on reality breaks, giving way to paranoia and endless rabbit holes.

Addie, meanwhile, has strange sexual scenes that may or may not be real, perhaps manifestations of her trauma. She increasingly sinks into a more teenage and then infantile behavior. By the end, she hardly talks and resorts to sucking her thumb.  It’s hard to tell what the purpose of these scenes is. To shock? To show the effects of trauma? The last 30 minutes or so get really, really odd, even leaning into elements of giallo.

Beyond Conspiracy Theories

The film’s urban thriller elements work best here, along with Noelle and the stranger’s increased obsession with conspiracy theories. However, it’s difficult to make sense of it all. At its worst points, this film feels like a cold shoulder shrug, with nothing to say about the horrible abuse Epstein and his enablers inflicted upon women, including countless minors. However, maybe that’s the point. In the reality we live in, nothing makes sense. Down is up. When was the last time anything felt normal, especially during the pandemic? How can a filmmaker comment or depict horror when the world feels like it’s teetering from one crisis to the next, from one example of corruption to the next, from one conspiracy theory to the next?

If anything, Nekrasova’s film warns of the dangers of conspiracy theories, of getting sucked into these online threads with no way out. Noelle and the stranger live it and breathe it. One encourages the other. Their obsession overtakes their grip on reality. That’s truly horrifying. Addie, meanwhile, suffers, dismissed by her best friend and her boyfriend. Her pain becomes a punchline to them. The director’s influences are everywhere here, and while the ending feels muddled, the film’s chaotic elements lend themselves well to this QAnon era we’re all suffering through. This isn’t a perfect feature. Its message, if there is one, gets lost. However, the film does reflect an era in which there is no common truth. You can go online and find anything to back up your personal bias. We have no shared set of facts. That’s scary and dangerous.

The Scary of Sixty-First lands on Shudder March 3. For more on the streaming service’s exclusive and original content, check out my weekly Shudder Secrets column.