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Sator Review

February 9, 2021 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
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Sator Review  

Directed by: Jordan Graham
Written by: Jordan Graham

Michael Daniel – Pete
Rachel Johnson – Evie
Aurora Lowe – Deborah
Gabriel Nicholson – Adam
June Peterson – Nani

Running Time: 86 minutes
Not rated.

The phenomenon of slow-burn horror has been given a real shot in the arm over the last several years. It’s certainly not a new thing, of course; you can go back to Roman Polanski’s 1965 paranoia-filled Repulsion and even further if you’re looking for films that take their time building dread before they kick into high gear. But the last decade or so in particular have seen a renaissance in this particular style as independent horror sees a new golden era, films like Ty West’s The House of the Devil & The Sacrament, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, Ari Aster’s Hereditary and Midsommar, and last year’s The Dark and the Wicked, The Relic, The Amulet among many others.

This particular type of horror admittedly isn’t everyone’s favorite. The gradual build and the creation of dread amongst the quiet can come off as boring for some. But for people who enjoy the independent stylings, heightened themes and often oppressive feel that a slow burn can give, it’s a great time to be a horror fan. And those fans will find a lot to appreciate in Sator, Jordan Graham’s moody sophomore directorial effort. Combining elements of the “cabin in the woods” subgenre with demonic influences, neuroatypicality, and the stylings of It Comes at Night with Graham’s personal family history, the film arrives on Digital and On Demand today from 1091 Pictures.

The film stars Gabriel Nicholson as Adam, a troubled man who lives alone in the woods with his dog. This solitary and lonely existence largely seems to consist of his regularly checking old deer cameras for signs of something and making his way through the woods with his rifle on his back, searching for something. It’s a brooding existence, capped each day with evenings in his cabin when he eats and listens to audio tapes of an older woman talking about a presence named Sator.

We soon learn that Adam isn’t completely cut off from the world. He has a brother, Pete, and a whole family not far away from him. Most of them keep away but as we spend some time with them, we come to realize that Adam’s exile came at the insistence of his family after his grandfather mysteriously died and his mother, who suffered from hallucinations, disappeared soon after. As we learn more about Adam, we start to realize that there may be more than just hallucinations affecting this family, and very little is as it appears.

Sator is a deeply personal film for Graham in several ways, most notably in its plot. Graham has described how some members of his family have heard voices and that it resulted in several generations of women on his mother’s side being hospitalized. His grandmother, June Peterson, underwent psychiatric intervention but insisted that the voices that she heard was a very real entity named Sator, and not the result of mental illness. She did automatic writing that she said was the result of Sator.

Graham took that story and, due to circumstances surrounding how he had to film, ended up including June and Sator themselves into the narrative. June plays the role of Nani, the grandmother whose voice Adam listens to on those tapes, and she plays a very real role in the film relating her personal experiences of the encounters, in his words, “while her memory of them was still intact.”

That might seem exploitative, and it’s a potentially fair assessment, but there’s nothing in this film that does anything less than treat Graham’s grandmother with complete respect. It also gives the film a very natural feel and, at times a documentary-like aspect that fits shockingly well with the story Graham constructed around it. There’s an added edge to the story because we know for a fact that it’s real – or at least, Nani/June’s belief in Sator is real. And even though the narrative surrounding that is fictional, it feels like something that could be real. It’s heartbreaking, haunting, and more than a little bit creepy at the same time.

Graham also did basically everything that doesn’t involve on-camera work on this film. The end credits start with, “Created by Jordan Graham — producer, writer, cinematographer, editor, casting, production designer, makeup, costumes, cabin construction, gaffer, grip, camera operator, colorist, visual & special effects, sound designer & mixer, score.” It took Graham years to complete post-production, but the absolutely singular touch makes it a very clear creation of this one man. You can feel that in almost every frame of the film; whether you like the slow burn and sometimes-confusing plot obfuscation or not, it’s hard not to be impressed with how completely it is one person’s vision in a way that even most full-on film auteurs can’t necessarily claim.

It must be said though; when I call this a slow burn, that’s almost an understatement. Graham keeps his film moving along at a very languid pace, and that’s undoubtedly going to be a turn off for some. The first 10-plus minutes of the film are dialogue free, and when Pete shows up to allow some speaking to begin, it’s not exactly the most animated of exchanges. But the film excels in just about every other area; it’s beautiful for one, shot by Graham in a forest that has a gorgeous sort of creepiness to it. His sound design draws you into the stifling melancholy Adam is feeling, such that when his one regular companion in his dog vanishes, it’s agonizing for the viewer as well.

And it’s not like there isn’t payoff in the end. When Graham does ramp it up, the low register we’ve been kept at just makes the scenes of horror that we do get that much more shocking. Even moments like a beer bottle cap being slammed off can draw a jolt amid the overbearing quietness. This is far from the feel-good movie of early 2021, but it will certainly make you feel a lot. It’s just not a lot of happy things, or even much in the way of catharsis.

That will absolutely end up turning off some viewers; if you didn’t like how slow The Witch moved for example, you’ll be in fits over this one. But for those whose patience can be tested and come out whole (if not unscathed), there’s a hell of a lot to like here. The cast is understated, but they capture the nuance of their characters well and Peterson’s stories fit seamlessly into the framework. And everything else is incredibly on point. I can’t really blame anyone who comes away from Sator feeling cold; the scares aren’t jolty, and the mood is made for being uncomfortable. But it’s also a film that, if you have the patience to stick with it, will stay with you for a long time after the credits (overlaid with more footage of Peterson, who sadly passed in 2019) have faded.

The final score: review Very Good
The 411
Jordan Graham's Sator is a film that may test the tolerance that horror fans have for slow builds, but for those who can vibe with that it’s a haunting and unnerving experience. The real-life inspiration for Graham’s story of a family dealing with what may neuroatypicality but could also be a demon comes through in the authenticity, supplemented by actual footage of Graham’s grandmother who served as the story’s inspiration. Beautifully shot and quietly sinister almost to a fault, this is a film that wraps its antlery hands around your brain and won’t let go until long after it ends.

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Sator, Jeremy Thomas