To say that Sator was a labour of love for director Jordan Graham would be an absurd understatement. Over the film’s seven-year production history, Graham has taken on almost every behind-the-camera role imaginable, including writing, directing, camera operation, sound design and even constructing the cabin set in which much of the story takes place. Every moment of the film is imprinted with his own unique signature, and this intimate approach is appropriate, because Sator‘s slow-burn horrors are rooted in experiences from Graham’s own life.
The film focuses on a family who live in the middle of some dense woodland. Adam (Gabriel Nicholson) is a solitary woodsman, living alone in his cabin with only a dog for company. In the dialogue-free opening, we see him stalking through the woods with a rifle on his back, checking his cameras and broodily stamping around. At night, he relaxes by listening to eerie tape recordings of a woman talking about a supernatural presence named Sator. All is clearly not well with Adam.
However, Adam is not as alone as he may appear. He has a brother named Pete (Michael Daniel), a sister called Evie (Rachel Johnson) and a family homestead nearby. But Adam remains in self-imposed exile, following his grandfather’s mysterious death and the disappearance of his mother, who suffered from hallucinations. These hallucinations, and the belief in a supernatural presence named Sator, may be an inheritance passed down through the family. In black and white asides, Adam’s grandmother Noni (June Peterson) describes her experiences with the entity. For her, Sator is a benevolent spirit guide, but for Adam, it represents something much more sinister.
One of the most interesting aspects of the film is the way that Graham interweaves his own life story with the fiction. June Peterson is his real-life grandmother, and the scenes of her describing encounters with Sator and illustrating his influence through automatic writing are true to her own experiences.
For genre fans who crave the visceral thrills of masked slashers and jump scares, Sator is likely to be something of a nightmare. It is the slowest of slow burns, presenting to the audience an enigmatic puzzle box with no clear guide on how to tease out its secrets. The experience ends up being less about plot and more about mood. The visuals are lush and foreboding at the same time, with highly textural soundscapes crafted by Graham to heighten dread and suspense. The landscapes are truly breathtaking, and with Graham’s mastery of shadow and contrast, each frame can be as enticing as it is sinister.
The performances are slightly less engaging. At times, the minimalist dialogue and emphasis on realism can slip over into ‘indie mumblecore’ parody. Where lead Gabriel Nicholson is concerned, this ‘less is more’ approach to performance is fairly effective, as he has an expressive face and conveys highly readable emotions. Elsewhere, it can make conversations and relationship dynamics difficult to follow. Heavily bearded Michael Daniel delivers his lines in a gruff monotone, seemingly without moving his mouth. The two brothers’ one-note interactions convey a sense of familiarity, but may leave audiences wishing that the pair would speak up.
All of this is not to say that the experience is totally austere. The climax does involve some blood and guts, and the slow, melancholic build up of the movie makes these scenes all the more shocking. It probably won’t be enough to endear it to diehard gore-hounds, but having built tension so effectively throughout the film, it’s good to see Graham showing us that his beast has fangs.
Sator will not be for everyone. It’s an experience that requires patience to enjoy and rewards analytical readings, allowing multiple interpretations of the events it depicts. The supernatural goings-on could as easily be explained by Adam succumbing to his family’s hereditary mental health issues, and the film is unwilling to nail its flag to either mast. Beautiful and personal, melancholy and mysterious, if Sator finds its audience, it will no doubt stay with them long after the final credits have rolled.