Bare-bones in scale but enormous in effect, “The World Is Full of Secrets” from first-time director Graham Swon instills psychological fear by commanding our morbid infatuation with theoretical violence, the kind that happens to other people but we can’t imagine coming our way.
A bone-chilling exaltation of the subliminal power of storytelling, Swon’s feature evokes Nickelodeon’s “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” in that its premise rides on a group of teenage girls having a sleepover in summer 1996 and sharing the most horrific tale or real evil they’ve ever heard. One of them, in the voice of Peggy Steffans, narrates from a distant future remembering the events that rattle their lives that night.
Two simple but highly effective long takes occupy large stretches of this form-pushing debut. Emily (Alexa Shae Niziak), the group’s religious overachiever, details the violations Saint Agnes of Rome suffered as punishment for her devotion, while Suzie (Ayla Guttman) reinterprets the gruesome murder of Shanda Sharer at the hands of four other girls. There are no cuts or camera movements, only a static frame that relies solely on the young actresses.
An eerie visual atmosphere, created through candlelight and hypnotic reflections, heightens Swon’s unexpectedly unsettling film. As it explores the intersection between the occult and mankind’s brutal cruelty in relation to women, “The World Is Full of Secrets” grips us with its minimalist, calibrated and cerebral scare tactics.
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes
Playing: 8 p.m., Jan. 31, Echo Park Film Center