What is Sator? A legend? A spirit? A monster? An inherited doom? A second personality, whispering at you like a voice in your head? The short answer is: Sator is the first truly great horror film of 2021.
Director Jordan Graham’s film is set in a dark american forest somewhere near the Pacific northwest – unnamed, but visibly identifiable in parts as Yosemite. The year is vague: the 21st century is identifiable only through some flash drives used for a deer cam. Everything else seems older – in some cases, much older.
The story follows Adam (Gabe Nicholson, in his only feature role). Adam has retreated from his already-isolated family home to a woodland cabin, deep in the woods, where he hunts with his dog. His background is unclear, but he seems traumatised, sometimes falling into a trance. We learn a little more when his brother Pete visits (Michael Daniel, from Graham’s on previous feature, Specter).
Pete, almost equally shut down emotionally, mentions some recent deaths – their mother, their grandfather – and a car accident. The precise details remain unclear. He’s checking in, but there’s not too much he can do for his brother. At a further emotional distance are a sister and a friend, possibly a girlfriend. And finally there’s their grandmother, Nani, who we see in flashback grainy black and white video footage. She has some things to say about an entity in the woods that talks to her. Something that will invite you to join it, and purify you with fire – something called Sator. Adam and Pete both very much have Sator on their mind. Adam even has Sator in his dreams. This might be a heartbreaking case of inherited schizophrenia – but then again, something real, out in the dark, keeps triggering his deer cam.
Long quiet shots give us almost unbearable sustained tension; Adam skulks about in and around his hideaway with the uneasy body language and glassy eyes of severe cabin fever,. The sound design throughout is phenomenal – creaking wooden boards, rustling wildlife, a dog howling in the distance or scrabbling at a door. The cinematography is chilly perfection – a miasma of cold forest greens and earthy browns, punctuated by the brilliance of a white flame, or the almost alien blue of a clear vespertine sky. Few films really capture the ominous terror of night time in the wilderness as well as Sator. It somehow delivers the exact sense of dread that once might feel when the sun goes down, stillness descends, and you suddenly realise you are very far from home.
Nicholson and Daniel do great work as the brothers, living in an altered, closed-off emotional state that might be PTSD or something altogether less explicable. And Graham’s real-life grandmother, June Petersen, playing Nani might just be the star of the piece. Sometimes gazing into the distance, sometimes locking a co-star or the camera with an impish glare, and talking through the fuzzy video haze of the entity that came to her just when she needed something, and stayed with her.
But here’s the catch – Sator is named after a real entity, albeit one that seems to have been produced by the unusual psychology of Petersen herself. Initially invited to play a cameo while Graham used her house as a shooting location, she started to improvise with tales of her youth. It was only then that she began revealing her relationship with something called Sator – a voice in her head, telling her things, inviting her to talk back, taking hold of her hands and writing things down with them. Sator had, apparently, been with her for many years. And so, as the director made his film, Sator took it over. Graham started to retool the story, pulling it apart and reforming it scene by scene as he went to reflect the story and performance gradually revealed to him by his grandmother. In part because of this unusual approach, and in part because Graham acted as director, writer, editor, set designer, carpenter, cinematographer and producer, Sator was six years in the making.
Invoking in parts such disparate films as The Witch, The Blair Witch Project, Hereditary and It Comes At Night, Sator is ultimately too personal a film to be summed up by comparison with that cohort – and in any case, its genesis prefigures most of them. Coming from something close to a one-man operation, this is instead almost outsider art, tapping into something deep and real that other horror films can only try to emulate.
Sator is a minor miracle, a must see, and surely destined to be one of the key horror films of the decade.
Sator is available on VOD now in the US, and via Digital Download here from February 15th in the UK.
A note on dates: Sator is a 2021 film if we’re going by general public release dates; although it’s just now being made publicly available, Jordan Graham’s labour of love first emerged onto the horror festival circuit in 2019, playing the rounds of such events as London’s esteemed Soho Horror Film Festival. Based on those screenings, we previously labelled it the 41st best horror of the 2010s!