Monday, October 28, 2019

The World is Full of Secrets: Think of Them as Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

For horror enthusiasts, story-tellers sometimes become as important as their stories. Think of the fandom inspired by the likes of Poe and King and Wes Craven and Dario Argento. When done right, the act of story-telling stirs something primal on an archetypal Beowulf level. These girls are perhaps not the greatest story-tellers, but they inadvertently reveal much about themselves as they spin their yarns in screenwriter-director Graham Swon’s The World is Full of Secrets, which opens this Thursday at the Anthology Film Archives (check them out getting into the Halloween spirit).

Clara survived whatever happened that fateful night in 1996, but it had a profound impact on the rest of her life. Her parents left her alone while they took some kind of trip, as they always do, but they had no problem with her inviting a few friends over (no boys, of course). To pass the languid time, Susie challenges each girl to tell the most disturbing real-life anecdote they ever heard. Looking back decades later, Clara can’t really remember the first story itself, but we can see how innocently animated her friend gets in the telling.

Emily’s story might just confuse and discomfort a lot of viewers, because it chronicles the brutal martyring of a young Christian women during the repressive pagan years of the Roman empire. However, Clara drops ominous hints that the horrors the Roman protagonist would later befall the storyteller as well.

By far, the scariest story we hear is the one told by Suzie, who suggested the competition in the first place. It is a brutal tale that describes how easily average people can slip into criminal madness through boredom and peer pressure, but what really makes it frightening is the way Swon and young thesp Ayla Guttman insidiously hint that perhaps Susie was in fact one of the participants in this grisly affair.

Secrets takes an elliptical, almost experimental approach to horror, but it still manages to burrow under your skin. The tone might be described as something like Picnic at Hanging Rock on hallucinogens. The audience will have to concentrate a little, but it is worth it. As a genre bonus, Swon stages two spooky incidents in between the story-telling that will truly raise the hair on the back of your neck. Frankly, the first fifteen minutes or so could have been tighter and one additional bit of supernatural suggestiveness would have made it easier to recommend Secrets to more aesthetically conventional viewers. However, adventurous horror fans will definitely find the film rewarding.

Arguably, Swon could only realize this film through oblique suggestion, because the young cast really look like the fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds they are portraying. They are just barely teens, but they command the screen, especially Guttman and Alexa Shai Niziak, who have the two longest monologues. They can even withstand cinematographer Ben Cartwright’s eerily disorienting dissolves and double-exposures, which really give the film a distinctive visual flavor. Highly recommended for highly discerning horror fans, The World is Full of Secrets opens this Halloween in New York, at the Anthology Film Archives.