Described by director Jordan Graham as a “filmmaker’s film,” Sator doesn’t offer an easy narrative, jumping around a timeline at an unhurried pace. The nonlinear structure will test the patience of most horror audiences, and yet the artfully composed cinematography and undercurrent of malevolence draws you in.
The lead performance is almost wordless, and the scattering of random characters are introduced without any clear connection and the least possible dialogue. Sator is folk horror, conjuring up those dark things that infest the backwoods at night. Within lies an entity fixated on a family for generations – or perhaps it's all undiagnosed mental illness, since there’s some allusion to breakdowns and trauma.
The film’s tone is bleak, bewildering, creepy, and deeply unsettling. The sound design takes on a life of its own, with a constant droning mix of whispers, distant screeching, birds, growls and wails. Sator is defiantly enigmatic, but just one repeated viewing helps unravel its deeper mysteries.
Behind the Scenes
Upon finishing the film, I immediately scoured the web for interviews with the director and found some startling information. The film took over six years to complete and Graham did most of the heavy lifting behind the scenes: directing, writing, producing, cinematography, editing, sound design, and set building. Normally this is the recipe for disaster as the doing everything allows no feedback, collaboration, or perspective. This isn’t the case here. While another voice may have persuaded Graham to smooth out the narrative structure, a second viewing really shows how essential it is to give viewers a taste of the disorienting experience the lead character faces. The film creates a kind of strange trance and speaks to the singular voice at the helm, controlling every element.
More compelling is Graham casting his non-actor grandmother, June Peterson, in a cameo role that would change the course of the film. Once the camera was rolling, Peterson began telling her true story of communicating with a spirit called Sator at first through a ouija board which then led to months of automatic writing sessions and an eventual mental breakdown. Surprised by these revelations, Graham threw out most of his script and instead focused on the story of Sator. Graham had actors improvise scenes with Peterson and his film's own fictional narrative emerged. He later found through hundreds of his grandmother's automatic writing pages with the entity's messages and presumably these are the words we hear, recited in a woman's terrifying intonation, over the radio that Adam has in the cabin. Sator, it turns out, is a very real life horror.
Who or What is Sator?
Graham plays with the timeline by inter-cutting out-of-sequence final scenes at the beginning and throughout the film, adding to the disjointed feel. We know that Adams mother succumbed to Sator’s influence and then vanished. Adam has returned to a cabin in the woods to kill Sator. His brother is also there to help Adam but is unconvinced that Sator exists, he himself having a mental breakdown for some undisclosed reason. A girl that may be his niece appears in this home and the forest but this could be Adam's memories mixing in with his current reality. He believes he is going crazy like the rest of his family.
At first I believed the film was about a Wendigo, a malevolent forest spirit that exerts an influence over this family, causes Adam’s hallucinations and subsequent violent decline. Yet at a pivotal point, a cloaked figure appears in his living room, stands, and removes a deer skeleton mask revealing a woman who looks like it could be his mother, dressed in white with a smooth head. This was the first indication that perhaps Sator was paranormal but not supernatural demon. Earlier, Adam looks up at a very bright star that suddenly darts out of the sky. A third scene reveals the silhouette of the forest against the night sky when suddenly a large, round shape engulfs the forest. We also see Adam dressed in a white costume standing in the forest several times, and well as other people dressed in white who appear and disappear in the house. While you could read this as a cult, I read it as a uniform or rather, a spacesuit. My take is that an alien entity communicates with the grandmother and mother using telepathy, marks the family, takes a few members, and strangely kills the ones who are of no use. To what end? Who knows. But the men see these entities as a monsters to be killed, and the family trauma is passed from generation to generation.
While this film is Graham’s second film, in many ways feels like a debut, and even though its a low-budget film, the production looks prestige. It’s evocative work that draws a parallel to the new auteurs of horror like Ari Aster and Robert Eggers. It quietly creates a dreadful atmosphere, unleashes some horrific deaths, and guards its secrets well past the finish line, needling your mind for days. It won’t please many casual horror fans, but those who prefer mysterious slowburns will find much to appreciate.