I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many roles assigned to one person as Jordan Graham has on Sator. The end credits list him as (deep breath): producer, director, writer, cinematographer, editor, casting, production designer, make up, gaffe, grip, camera operator, colourist, visual and special effects, sound designer and score. He does just about everything except act, and even built the cabin in the woods in which much of the film is set. To say this unsettling horror film is the vision of one person is an understatement.
This very low-budget labour of love at first seems very reminiscent of countless other horror flicks, complete with cabin, dark woods and malevolent unseen forces. But Graham has crafted something a lot more experimental and atmospheric. His film is eerie throughout and at times builds a remarkable tension out of almost nothing. He somehow manages to lace over-familiar situations with a fresh sense of dread and suspense.
The plot, or rather the scenario, is relatively straightforward although Graham makes us work to figure out what’s going on, choosing to reveal things slowly and in fragments. Adam (Gabe Nicholson) lives by himself in a remote woodland cabin in the snowy north Californian wilderness. He survives by trapping and hunting, and only makes occasional trips for supplies in his pick-up. We come to learn that his relatives live a short drive away: his brother Pete (Michael Daniel) with whom he shares a near wordless yet sympathetic bond, Pete’s peculiar girlfriend Evie (Rachel Johnson), his sister Deborah (Aurora Lowe), and his grandmother Noni, who is suffering from senile dementia.
Adam lives in continual fear of a supernatural being named Sator, who he believes has terrified his family for generations. Sator seems to speak to his grandmother, through voices and automatic writing and it’s implied that somehow Sator was responsible for the departure of the siblings’ mother (Wendy Taylor). At his sister’s urging, Adam has chosen to move into his grandfather’s cabin far from the family home for his own wellbeing, but now he feels the supernatural being is getting increasingly closer.
The film isn’t afraid to take it’s time. There are several slow, wordless sequences that create mood and atmosphere as we watch Adam’s slow and deliberate day-to-day existence. But all of these are suffused with an uncanny dread with an impressive sonic and visual texture. The sound design is remarkable, a continual, claustrophobic soundscape of oppressive background drones, harmonics and processed wind; something that’s not quite natural, yet not quite man-made. I listened with a good pair of headphones to appreciate its nuance.
Sator is a visually dark film: dark sparse cabin, dark endless forest, with often just the orange glow from a fireplace, some faint candlelight or a torch beam offering some meagre illumination against the blackness with its unseen terrors. During the day the snowy wilderness is almost monochrome, except when punctuated by beautiful skies that glow with colour-streaked cold sunsets. The family home should seem comforting in its domesticity, but it’s clearly a place of bad memories. Graham often shoots it in a 4:3 academy ratio that makes it feel enclosing in contrast to the widescreen wilderness, sometimes with flickering black-and-white Super 8 home movie film stock with flattened sound and a strange point-of-view perspective that give a sense of being observed.
The range of visual textures adds a richness without being too showy. Graham’s compositions and visual moods are often beautiful, with shadows and darkness hinting at things unseen as much as what’s in view. The sense of disorientation also comes from the film’s structure. It’s often difficult to distinguish present day from flashbacks and this fragmentary and experimental approach to time magnifies the sense of distance and mystery. With its slow pace and non-linear structure, we get a sense of inevitability.
Adam’s grandmother Noni takes a central role in the film. Kindly and affectionate, Noni’s memories are fading into senility and she can barely recall events from the previous day, often struggling to recognise her grandchildren. By contrast, she can vividly recall her encounters with Sator and the film is interspersed with home-video monologues as she describes a presence that to her is a benign guardian. These precise, measured yet rambling orations are eerie and strange, creating a strong sense of the uncanny. The camera gazes over pages and pages of her spidery automatic writings, text purportedly dictated by Sator and wiry indistinct portraits all set an unearthly tone.
Noni is played by Graham’s real-life grandmother who died before the film’s release. June Peterson was genuinely suffering from senility and it seems the footage isn’t acted. Sator was real for her and Graham captured her rambling monologues and used it as the foundation for his film. There are slightly unsettling ethical questions around consent and Graham could be seen to be taking advantage of his grandmother’s frailty, but she is at least treated with a quiet dignity and warm respect.
This overlap with real life certainly adds a very personal element, it is also partly responsible for some of the film’s more muddled narrative. Although we get plenty of fragmentary hints, many of the plot elements seem too confused and incoherent to deliver a really satisfying payoff. There are suggestions of a theme of the dread of mental illness passed down through generations, but it’s more impressionistic than fully defined.
But while some viewers will find this vagueness maddening and the slow-burn pace is likely to test people’s patience, there’s much to savour in the film’s meticulous atmosphere and genuine sense of unease. Graham spent an incredible six years in post-production, meticulously fine-tuning the film’s structure and texture. He’s produced a richly layered experience, a very unique film with a strong command of slow-burn atmosphere. If you’re seeking thrills, jump-scares or gore you’ll be disappointed, but in Sator Graham has created a film with a disquieting tone. It’s one to watch with the lights out.
Sator will be available on Digital Download in the UK from February 15th 2021 and on DVD from February 22nd.Follow @davefilmblog