Sator is not for everybody — let’s just get that out of the way quickly. However, unlike many other stubbornly-pretentious movies that deliberately isolate their audiences as a point of pride, it’s by necessity rather than design. The story is based on director Jordan Graham and his extended family’s experiences with the supernatural. The titular being is somebody that Graham’s grandmother, who plays herself, speaks to as a symptom of her dementia — or is it? Suffice to say, Sator’s real-world ties are what make it a simultaneously fascinating and frustrating viewing experience overall.
The protagonist is, ostensibly, Gabriel Nicholson’s Adam, who’s living in a dilapidated shack in the woods while hunting deer. Or, at least, that’s what his brother Pete (Michael Daniel) suggests ominously when he visits one day. Adam roams the forest with a gun and his dog (who clearly knows something is up) in tow during daylight, but spends his nights combing over grainy footage of their surroundings, often while simultaneously listening to crackly recordings of Nani (June Peterson) talking to “Sator.” It’s not immediately clear what Adam is hoping to glean from doing either of these things. In fact, his intentions grow muddier as the film goes on.
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Sator kicks off with some monochrome footage, shot in a boxy ratio to set the mood, of what looks from the outside to be a haunting. As it transpires, every time the action, or rather inaction, moves to Nani’s house, the film reverts to this style of footage. It’s an interesting choice overall, and one that certainly sets a creepy tone right off the bat, but it’s not entirely clear why Graham has chosen to differentiate in this way. At times, Sator feels almost like a documentary, as though old footage is being spliced into the greater narrative, giving it kind of a Blair Witch Project feel. The isolated forest setting fits this strange, off-kilter mood perfectly, its earthiness providing a further layer of oddness.
There’s a mystery element to Sator too, revolving around Adam’s missing mother and also the particulars of what happened to his grandfather. Whether he’s actively seeking Sator out or not is left vague, or maybe it doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, but Adam is clearly trying to protect himself from something with the big cross necklace permanently draped around his neck. Nani intones “he will make you pure” at one point, but Graham provides little in the way of background information about the creature — is he a minion of Satan? A wendigo? There’s even a suggestion that Adam’s dog whistle, which sounds like a screaming child, might be summoning Sator.
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The introduction of oddball Deborah (Aurora Lowe) sadly robs Sator of some of its well-built atmosphere by making things too plain. For much of its short run-time, Graham plays with the idea that the demon might not actually be real but is rather a symptom of hereditary mental illness. When Deborah shows up and Lowe, a rather wooden actress, fixes Adam with a dead-eyed stare, complemented by her irritatingly one-note line delivery, it’s difficult to imagine something supernatural isn’t going on, which is a real shame because it’s when the particulars are left murky that Sator really sings.
Graham is evidently working from a non-existent budget (Sator was reportedly in post-production for several years), but what’s presented onscreen utterly usurps those potential setbacks. The landscape is photographed beautifully, while an audioscape of weird, ambient forest noises ensures that even the most mundane tasks, such as opening a can of carrots, are tight with tension. Graham’s compositions are really beautiful and spookily elegant in a way that captures how expansive the landscape is while also alerting viewers to its foreboding oppressiveness. There’s certainly a dark feeling to Sator overall.
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Sator is a slow burn, and the payoff for waiting around will not suit everybody. Like Blair Witch, it requires your full attention to really make an impact — half-watching while scrolling through Twitter won’t cut it. Although Graham cultivates an atmosphere of impending dread, it’s difficult to fully engage with the story because nobody outside of his immediate family knows what actually happened. Also, most of the dialogue is presented in whispers while little attempt is made to introduce characters or illuminate their roles in the story. Atmosphere is all well and good, but there must be something, or someone, to cling to also.
Still, this is a massive achievement for the first-time filmmaker, who manages to do an awful lot with very little, whichever way you slice it. Sator only verges on violent in short bursts, but when it does, the makeup and SFX are terrific. Likewise, the design of the creature itself is hugely impressive and tactile, once again making the argument for a guy in a suit over dodgy CGI. There will be screams of “Nothing happens!” from hardcore genre fans, but this isn’t the kind of movie that sets out to jump-scare an audience into submission. What Graham is doing here, and indeed what he’s evidently working through personally in real time, is more sophisticated and thoughtful than mindless scares.
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Sator is atmospheric, experimental and the very definition of a slow burn. It’s an easier film to admire than enjoy, but Graham’s debut definitely leaves a mark. No matter what he chooses to do next, we should all be paying close attention.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.