Fantasia 2019: ‘Sator’ Leaves its Mark with Haunting, Minimalistic Horror [Review]
Jordan Graham’s Sator is a film whose backstory is just as compelling as its main storyline. The film itself is the very definition of a labor of love. For a period of five years, Graham worked on almost every aspect of the production. The end result is a film that is intensely personal, and transcends the potential limits of its budget.
The seed of Sator’s story is rooted in the threads of Graham’s family. Throughout the years, a number of his family members heard voices. These voices were sometimes attributed to mental illness. Other times they were thought of as communications of a spiritual nature. In one instance, this affliction resulted in suicide. In the case of Jordan Graham’s grandmother, she created a lifelong connection to a spirit she identified as Sator. Even through the ravages of dementia which robbed her of the memories of her friends and family members, she maintained the memory of a connection to Sator.
Graham’s film Sator uses this tragic backdrop to tell a story steeped in mystery, escalating into bursts of outright violence and horror. Sator combines black and white 1.33:1 photography used for flashbacks with strikingly beautiful widescreen color photography. Some of the images and sound design would feel at home in the works of David Lynch. Sator blends the real and the abstract as effortlessly as it does different visual styles. Strikingly beautiful shots of snowy fields and fog-draped forests contrast with images that wouldn’t be out of place in the climactic moments of Robert Egger’s The Witch. Sights and sounds circle back on themselves, and things that might seem meaningless at first return with ominous portent.
Sator begins in an almost hallucinatory fashion. Deep forest gives way to piles of handwritten notes. The camera moves silently into a house lit by a sea of candles. An elderly woman sits up in bed, and in another room a figure stands surrounded by candles on the floor. From these dreamlike vistas we are introduced to Adam (Gabe Nicholson). Adam lives a solitary life in his meager woodland cabin. He spends his days shooting at beer bottles, wandering through the woods, and occasionally being visited by his brother, Pete (Michael Daniel). The brothers’ relationship is strained, and they each seem to be battling their own personal demons. Tragedy has recently struck the family, tearing it asunder and leaving the brothers struggling to cope with the aftermath.
Adam’s grandmother Nani (June Peterson) also lives nearby. Nani suffers from some form of dementia that affects both her short-term and long-term memory. One constant in her life is the spirit Sator. Nani says that Sator has been training her to “be a person.” The brothers at first seem to chalk this up to a manifestation of Nani’s deteriorating mental state. Before long, the entity Sator begins manifesting itself in ways that cannot be denied. Strange images appear, captured by Adam’s deer cameras. The line between dreaming and waking starts to blur, and soon Adam is visited by multiple strange presences. These visitations increase in frequency and apparent malevolence.
As the story plays out, Graham crafts a series of striking abstract images that heighten the sense of impending dread. Deep, dark woods are pierced by a fire, and weird figures move through the darkness. Visions of Sator and its minions leave an indelible mark in the viewer’s brain, conjuring up fears we’ve never truly outgrown. The film culminates in a crescendo of unexpected violence that is shocking in its suddenness and intensity.
Sator is a film that may fly under the radar of many audiences, but demands to be experienced. At times minimalistic and meditative, it also delivers images that won’t soon be forgotten, as well as a pervasive sense of dread that remains long after the credits have rolled. The care and time that Jordan Graham devoted to Sator are evident in every frame. Horror fans looking for something more than wall-to-wall gore or regularly-paced jump scares are highly encouraged to seek this one out. One viewing will not be enough. Sator stays with you.
Sator is making its world premiere at the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.