It’s now officially Halloween season, and what better way to get in the mood than with a scary story? Better yet, several scary stories, told by teenage girls at a sleepover. That’s the setup for Graham Swon’s The World is Full of Secrets, which had a festival run in 2018 and 2019 and is now available for home viewing from Kino Lorber.
The film is introduced by the voiceover of an older woman (Peggy Steffans), who tells us that what we are about to see is true. She also waxes philosophical, recalling that the world of teenage girls “can be full of wonder and delight” but can also become “a place of confusion, terror…” This same narrator will return at regular intervals throughout the film to comment on these girls and reveal her relationship to them. The film proper presents a group of best friends (played by Elena Burger, Dennise Gregory, Ayla Guttman, Alexa Shae Niziak, and Violet Piper), gathered for a sleepover at a comfortable suburban home. They alternate between normal girl stuff (painting their nails, making popcorn, and the like) and trying to scare the bejesus out of each other with scary stories and then by summoning up spirits. Oh, and since it’s 1996, they’re not glued to their smartphones, but instead rely on their own imagination and dramatic flair to entertain each other.
Swon studied theatre directing in college and has considerable experience as a producer, so it makes sense that in his first film, he would try to make the most of a small budget by relying on acting performances enhanced by excellent cinematography by Bart Cortright, and superb production design (Rae Swon), art direction (Emily Lippolis), and score (Rae Swon). The best thing about The World is Full of Secrets are its visuals, with layered images and well-chosen details creating a sense of depth and mystery that is unfortunately not present in the stories themselves.
The kind of stories real girls tell at sleepovers have two key features—they’re short, and they have a payoff. Of course, from a literary point of view, they also tend to tap into fears that girls of that age feel but can’t always express, but it’s in terms of length and effect that the stories in The World is Full of Secrets really fall down. Swon puts tremendous pressure on his young actors, keeping the camera on a single girl for extended stretches while they are telling their stories, and to pull that off requires technique and experience that they just don’t have yet.
Let the record show that I’m not saying that a long work built on a series of stories told by cast members is necessarily undramatic—this form been successfully employed in many of Conor McPherson’s plays, including The Weir, for instance—but making that kind of production a success requires both great stories and great performances, and The World is Full of Secrets comes up short on both counts.
I don’t want to sound too harsh, because there’s a lot that’s good in The World is Full of Secrets. When they’re just carrying on ordinary teenage activities, the young cast is fine, and it’s an absolutely beautiful film in terms of visuals. The problem is that it often feels more like a diligent college essay than a film to be enjoyed, and as such will appeal mostly to people who want to see the conventions of a horror movie deconstructed rather than delivered. | Sarah Boslaugh
The World is Full of Secrets is distributed on DVD and Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. Extras include an audio commentary by writer/director Graham Swon, an illustrated booklet with an essay by Boris Nelepo, and one deleted scene (“The Magic Mirror,” 20 min.).