Release Date(s)2018 (October 6, 2020)
Studio(s)Ravenser Odd (Kino Lorber)
- Film/Program Grade: D
- Video Grade: C
- Audio Grade: C
- Extras Grade: B-
First-time director Graham Swon’s The World Is Full of Secrets, a low-key horror film set in 1996, focuses on a group of teenage girls at a sleepover. An elderly off-screen narrator (Peggy Steffens) suggests that the night’s events are true and changed the girls’ lives forever. Rather than having them terrorized by a maniac on the loose or attempting to open a door into hell, as might be expected from the premise, the plot has the girls deciding to tell scary stories as they paint their nails and make popcorn.
Suzie (Ayla Guttman), and friends Becca (Elena Burger), Clara (Dennise Gregory), Emily (Alexa Shae Niziak), and Mel (Violet Piper), each shares the worst story she’s ever heard. The stories center on beautiful, innocent girls about their age and deal with rape, girls who commit murder, and girls who are murdered. In uninterrupted close-ups as the camera lingers on their faces, each girl describes violence and violation and swears her story is true.
This is not a film for horror aficionados, since it seems to deliberately avoid many of the tropes of screen horror. Swon’s background is the theater, and he draws too much on dialogue and too little on cinematic technique.
Telling each story in a single, long shot becomes tedious. Perhaps Swon’s budget didn’t allow for showing the events being described, but the stories simply aren’t grabbers and the young actresses are not compelling enough to pull off 18-minute monologues. The most interesting visual element is Swon’s use of crossfades within scenes rather than as transitions from one shot into the next. This technique produces a dreamy quality that works well for the late-night setting. He also shows things coming into or leaving the frame, rather than using camera movements. His camera almost seems incapable of movement.
The overall result is a low-energy, dull movie with not much of a payoff. As a mood piece it’s more successful than as a total film. In fact, it seems like a film school thesis. The narrative moves at a glacial pace and direction is routine. With major chunks of the film relying on such a young cast, Swon should have found actors who could hold the viewer’s attention for more than a few seconds at a time, and he should have watched a few Hitchcock films to learn how to build suspense.
Featuring 1080p resolution, the film is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.20:1 by Kino Lorber. The visual quality is murky in many scenes with low-key lighting. Crossfades are a frequent stylistic touch, enabling overlapping images to appear in the same shot, either gradually dissolving in or out. The stories are told in a single shot with no cutaways to the other girls’ reactions. There is no camera movement, making it hard for these segments to hold viewer attention, and the film suffers for it. Close-ups are shown when the girls perform a bloodletting ritual that involves cutting their fingers.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 mono DTS-High Definition Master Audio with optional subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish. The film opens with a male voice that sounds like Boris Karloff. The narration by Peggy Steffens is one of the best single elements contributing to the film’s mood. It is heard periodically throughout the film, an older woman remembering a fateful night many years earlier. Dialogue is sharp and clear throughout, as each girl tells her story. The score by Rae Swon incorporates the theremin, an electronic instrument that usually creates a weird or foreboding atmosphere, but is used too infrequently to have much effect.
Bonus materials include a director’s audio commentary, a deleted scene, the theatrical trailer, and a booklet with a critical essay.
Audio Commentary – Director Graham Swon discusses how the first shot was geared to pull the viewer into the film. He favors long takes as a way of editing without camera movement. Swon’s background is the theater and he thinks of the frame as a proscenium stage on which people and things move into and out of frame. He’s fond of the camera work in films of the 1910s and the early 1930s when cameras got so heavy that directors stopped moving them. Though he admires camera movement, he also likes stillness in filmmaking. He chose Peggy Steffens as the narrator because he felt her voice had the quality he wanted. Crossfades are used within the same scene for dramatic effect. Some were planned, others created during the editing process. Swon slows them down to give scenes a sense of memory. The girls’ stories take place during different periods of history and focus on the victims, not the perpetrators. Swon chose the first story because he was fascinated by the mythology of martyrs. He enjoys hearing characters speak and believes “speaking without interjections can be quite compelling.” When a shot runs very long, “there’s no margin for sloppiness.” As a kid, Swon enjoyed lead-ins to stories more than the stories themselves. Concerning graphic imagery, he notes, “I find minor violence more disturbing than major violence. It pulls you in deeper.” A John Donne poem is included as a rejoinder to the violence of the world. The poem is bleak, but also elevated and sublime.
Deleted Scene – The Magic Mirror
Booklet – The 12-page insert booklet contains an essay by Boris Nelepo, five photos from the film, and a listing of cast and key crew.
– Dennis Seuling