With Sator, writer-director-cinematographer-editor Jordan Graham has created a unique, completely singular vision and brought it to life with such intensity, it’s easy to forgive the film its rare shortcomings. It’s best to go into Sator without knowing much about it and simply let Graham’s immersive filmmaking suck you into its terrifying, dreamlike world.
Adam (Gabriel Nicholson) lives alone in a small cabin deep in the woods. His only company is his loyal dog and every now and then, his brother Pete will visit him. The brothers’ mentally ill mother disappeared after the mysterious death of their father and their grandmother Nani (June Peterson), now riddled with dementia and the same mental illness that plagued her daughter, rambles on about Sator, a spirit she often talks to or sometimes for.
Sator will immediately draw obvious comparisons to films such as Ari Aster’s Hereditary and more accurately, Robert Eggers’ debut The VVitch. Sator shares the theme of inherited mental illness and the lack of free will, but similarly to The VVitch which isn’t really about the titular, very real witch, but about the central family’s internal dynamic, Sator isn’t really about Sator. Sator is real, in more ways than one; Peterson, who passed away shortly after filming, was Graham’s grandmother and truly believed in Sator and the beastly spirit certainly exists in the film too.
The hook isn’t about finding out whether Sator is real or not, although large parts of Graham’s film play out like dreams or hallucinations and it’s hard to say what’s really happening and what’s just Adam succumbing to his mind’s tricks. But to Nani and Adam, Sator is very real and Graham gives us glimpses of the spirit. At times, the film’s low-budget shows and takes away from the terror, but this is rare as Graham masterfully controls the mood and atmosphere of his film.
Graham is credited for almost everything, apart from acting, and spent several years crafting the film on his own, going as far as building the cabin featured in the film. Sator is a bold film, suffocating and terrifying, yet it often lacks the larger ideas that often make horror films so engaging. These are teased, but never fleshed out properly. Sator’s design is simple and effective, but every now and then, smarter, more imaginative camera angles could have disguised the lack of funds.
Sator is also a gravely serious film. While it is scary, it lacks the warmth and humanity that would have made it even scarier. Nicholson is wonderful as Adam, a sort of a blank canvas for the audience to project their ideas and emotions upon, but there isn’t an emotional connection to him. Graham’s script features very few lines of dialogue and most of the film is spent in relative silence, which bodes well for the overall mood of Sator, but it’s often difficult to make out characters’ relationships to each other or to form a clear image of how things came to be like this in the Graham’s world.
Nevertheless, Sator is a magnificent achievement in low-budget filmmaking. Ambitious and bold, it is a horror film that does a lot with very little and proves to be an affair that will linger in your mind long after the credits have stopped rolling. At 85 minutes, Sator is the perfect length, never outstaying its welcome but packing its runtime full of scares and slowburn horror. Don’t go in expecting jump scares galore but do go in to be scared out of your wits.
Dir: Jordan Graham
Scr: Jordan Graham
Cast: Gabriel Nicholson, Michael Daniel, Rachel Johnson, June Peterson
Prd: Jordan Graham
DOP: Jordan Graham
Music: Jordan Graham
Run time: 85 minutes
Sator is available on VOD February 15