Jordan Graham’s debut is an atmospheric, moody rumination on family dynamics, rural horror, and mental illness.
Sator, which premiered at Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, is an impressive nearly one-person show. Having written, directed, and performed almost all the technical work, including editing and sound design, Jordan Graham’s film is clear in tone and plot. Everything in this film has Graham’s stamp on it, making it intensely personal and unsettling. That’s not to say it isn’t ambiguous, just crystalline in that confusion.
The Story So Far
This isn’t your typical horror movie. Content to square with realism and relatability every moment is deliberate. It is loudly quiet and gorgeously ominous. Similar to the languid sweeping shots and wide angles of Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse, Sator uses what is readily available to the maximum effect. The natural woods are both beautiful and deeply unsettling. What should be pretty waterfalls and soothing woodland sounds are ripe with rot. Twin waterfalls over a rounded archway become a shrine to an entity that does not have good intentions. Decaying railroad tracks hang heavy with vegetation and moisture.
Cinematography is primarily dark. The best night scenes in The Blair Witch come to mind. Just as in The Blair Witch, the light only illuminates what Graham intends for us to see. Glimpses here and flashes there of things that can’t possibly exist. Camera angles from outside a doorway that narrowly focus attention on the subject without distraction keep the unrelenting fear present.
Every crunch of leaves or snap of a branch or animal call become literal shrieks from a forest Wendigo hellbent on possession. The silence is deafening, but the constant barrage of noise is jarring. The perfection lies in the terror of the mundane. The woods, a creaky cabin, Nani’s house, which could be anyone’s Grandma’s house, all are expertly used. The minimalist set and cast rely on the surroundings and hypnotic sound design to do the heavy lifting. The resolute somberness of Adam’s(Gabe Nicholson’s) existence is captured in every shriek, moan, creak, and crunch. Evocative without trying too hard, the constant cacophony of natural chatter, hideously layered mouth noises, and a beast call that you won’t forget completely take over the experience. A particularly harrowing plot beat shows absolutely nothing, as is zeros in on loud footfalls and fallen household items. Such is the genius of Sator.
Patience is adhered to rigidly. Graham wants you to beg for it when the payoff comes. He wants the viewer on edge and wound tight. Every second of the first hour is designed to do just that. This is a film content to patiently dole out details as it sees fit, not when you ask for them. That deliberate pace creates tension so intense; your spine is wire-taught by the time the action really starts. When it does, it is a bizarre head trip that could be a waking nightmare or a mental break from reality.
Reminiscent of psychological greats like The Witch, Antichrist, and The Visit, you never really know what is real. Deliberately vague, the black and white flashbacks serve to inform and manipulate the viewer. They are both the ultimate unreliable witness and master mesmer. Was Nani willing participant, controlled innocent, or tragically dangerous mentally ill woman? By the end, it hardly seems to matter as an entire family is affected. Whatever or whoever has been plaguing the family has been doing so for generations. If Nani was patient zero, the rest of the family members were all living on borrowed time. They are waiting for Sator to claim another life. An arthouse film that could easily be self-indulgent, Graham’s vision is unwavering and self-aware.
The question of mental illness can not be ignored. Many of the members of this family suffer from different forms. Nani has dementia currently, and there are signs she had schizophrenia when she was younger. There are hints at abuse and neglect, along with abandonment and substance abuse. Family members all have brushes with mental illness, and all accept Sator exists. The truth doesn’t matter, only what the family believes. They are devout disciples regardless of the steep price. Several relatives have already succumbed to Sator’s sway, whether real or imagined, and now appear as near-catatonic husks of their former selves. Possibly Sator in the flesh or something even more insidious. Regardless of the existence of Sator, something is in the woods and has taken animals and humans alike for unspeakable and often unseen reasons.
What is a Sator?
The Sator in the film is a creature of nature. A powerful beast with abilities to control minds, possess bodies, and influence physical laws. The word Sator is known through the Sator Square, an ancient grouping of five words Sator, Arepo, Tenet, Opera, and Rotas that, when placed on top of another, form the same words in any direction. Like Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, it is a never-ending loop. These squares have appeared in ancient Italy, Greece, Sweden, Syria, and England. An old Irish folktale tells of a poet with the power to control young women who forced a young woman to follow him into the woods until her father broke the spell. He found the Sator Square in her hand. With the events that transpire in the film, it isn’t a stretch to assume this was an influence.
The easy answer is something has stalked this family for generations. The literal viewer sees the creatures, not as symbols but corporeal entities. Demons on Earth with powerful abilities to overtake bodies, defy gravity, and break wills. More likely, Sator is a metaphor for the debilitating toll mental illness can have on the sufferer and their family. There was no monster chasing Adam except for himself. His condition had been creeping ever closer, barely controlled for years. The final haunting shot is his surrender and joining of the family. Unlike The Taking Of Deborah Logan, there are no clear-cut answers.
Nicholson handles the lion’s share of the work with an emotive obsessive stare. Using few words, Adam conveys all of his pent-up confusion, frustration, and anger. He is a fearful, desperate man on an inevitable collision with himself. Some of the dialogue is taken directly from actual stories recited down from Graham’s own family. Graham’s family has a history with this beast. His grandmother, great grandmother, and great-great-grandmother all claimed Sator spoke to them. All three were institutionalized for a time for that belief. That authenticity creates a feeling that swings between wide-eyed terror and tear-stained grief.
Nani, Graham’s own grandmother June Peterson, is as chilling as it gets in her own words. A lifetime of sorrow is etched onto the screen by her haunting words and devoted remembrance of the demon above all else. It is a deeply emotional kind of fear that is as sad as it is scary.
Clear to the final frame, Graham keeps his heel firmly on our throats. As Nani stares into the camera, an intense desire to speak overtakes the viewer as if the demon has come for us. Sator is as punishing as it is rewarding, and that’s perhaps the point. That long, endless night does eventually break to dawn. What happens when the sun appears and highlights the madness of the inky blackness? Only Adam can answer that as he sits with his fierce melancholia. In all likelihood, his demon has finally caught up with him, and there can be no escape.
Supernatural or not, Sator has taken his mind, body, and soul. There is nothing more frightening than the loss of control. Cinema reflects life, and as such, the fact is always scarier than fiction. An unforgettable experience that is part art, part wretched oral history, and part demonic folk tale, Sator is unlike anything you have seen. It’s available now on iTunes, Apple TV, Google Play, Amazon, and Microsoft now.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.