Jordan Graham’s supernatural thriller Sator defines a ‘labor of love’. Apparently, Graham – who pretty much did everything – worked on the movie for several years. This is the kind of DIY filmmaking that made The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, and The Blair Witch Project genre favorites. Based on the available promotional material, Sator promises slow-burn surrealist horror that would make A24 envious. Following its VOD release in February, Sator has cast a spell over critics, but left audiences lukewarm.
In an isolated cabin in the woods, Adam spends most of his time alone. Occasionally, his concerned brother, Pete, visits to offer some company. But Adam remains haunted by his grandmother “Nani’s” stories of a demonic spirit she calls Sator. Though her stories describe visits from a ‘friendly spirit’, Adam increasingly feels a menacing presence in the woods around him. With his family’s worries for him persisting, Adam struggles to discern nightmares from reality.
Sator a Haunting Nightmare of a Viewing Experience
From start to finish, Sator emphasizes style over substances. And this is not a criticism. Rather writer and director Jordan Graham creates an absolutely surrealist horror experience. The story is secondary to the mood Sator strives for and achieves. That is, Sator is a quiet, slow-burn that methodically drags its audience into what convincingly feels like someone’s nightmare. Just like a nightmare, the story is non-linear and many images feel random. But if they’re random they still achieve an affect of making you feel uncomfortable. When Graham introduces the movie’s few scenes of overt violence, it’s truly shocking. And Sator’s titular demon emphasizes a ‘more is less’ approach that manages to create some of the movie’s best low-key scares.
Each of the movie’s most intense and/or scary moments are carefully constructed. There’s no lapses to loud sounds or jump scares.
Perhaps what’s most impressive about Sator is the maturity of the filmmaking on display. If this was indeed a movie cobbled together over several years, it never shows. Something of a ‘jack-of-all trades’ on his project. Graham also served as his own cinematographer. Never do his sweeping shots of the isolated wilderness betray the movie’s small budget. Each of the movie’s most intense and/or scary moments are carefully constructed. There’s no lapses to loud sounds or jump scares.
Sator’s Narrative May Be Impenetrable for Audiences
Arguably, the story behind Sator’s development is as interesting as the movie itself. It’s one that several entertainment sites have already recounted in detail. Briefly, Graham laboured on his ‘cabin in the woods’ horror movie for several years, scraping together money, using friends and family, and filming when he could. His grandmother, June Peterson, not only played ‘Nani’ but her experiences with dementia profoundly changed and ultimately influenced the movies’ final story. In fact, Sator’s demonic presence is based on stories Peterson would tell family members. What’s ended up on the screen is a personal story of the generational impact of mental health. And it’s this aspect of Sator that gives it extra layers through which to sort.
…Sator defies traditional storytelling.
For better or worse, however, Sator’s narrative unfolds like a feverish dream. With no formal character introductions, sparse and natural dialogue, flashbacks, and different timelines, Sator defies traditional storytelling. Whether events are connected to one another or have meaning to the story is never clear. One character, Evie, appears and disappears at different points. Who is she? What is her relationship to the movie’s non-linear narrative? Simply put, Graham offers no explanations. Instead, Sator basks in ambiguity. Even its demonic entity is never identified as ‘real’ or just the product of mental illness. The story here isn’t so much dense as it is amorphous.
Sator a Challenging, But Ultimately, Rewarding Horror Movie
Ultimately, Sator pushes pretty hard on the line between accessible film-making and personal art. Not everyone will appreciate Graham’s vision – and it’s not likely for everyone. As surrealist horror, Sator’s nearly incomprehensible story makes it initially difficult to invest in the movie. But Graham’s ‘style over substance’ approach results in a truly chilling movie. There’s a maturity and confidence to the flimmaking here. If the narrative is ambiguous, Sator’s atmosphere compensates with its persistent nightmarish quality.