Directed by: Jordan Graham. Starring: Gabriel Nicholson, Michael Daniel, Rachel Johnson. Runtime: 1h 25 min.
Jordan Graham’s Sator is a passion project of a different kind-of nature, as a bonkers and unsettling horror film inspired by true events. The fact of the film is that these experiences started happening to his grandmother, June Peterson, in 1968, when she bought a Ouija board.
June appears in the film as Nani and gives her perspective of what happened to her, being haunted by the titular demon Sator, in scenes that give this a docufiction feel at times, but more-so just amps up the authenticity as the most insane horror scenes are mainly fiction.
As for the fictional portion of the story and what happens, the film mainly follows Adam (Gabriel Nicholson), a quiet type who spends his days isolated at his home in the woods, hunting and looking for something, as he has “deer cameras” set up throughout the woods that he checks every day, looking for Sator. We find out the reason for the adamant search later in the film. He also hangs out with his brother Pete (Michael Daniel). That’s the simplicity of the plot; just a family isolated in the forest as they’re observed by a demon.
The film’s very much in the “slow-burn” thriller vein like many of A24’s films – Robert Eggers’ The Witch or Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes At Night are direct comps – but, even despite the simplistic story, there seems to be always something happening. Graham’s direction makes this forest feel alive throughout the film, and its immersive cinematography and sound design really sets the tone. One of the film’s most horrifying sounds is made by Adam in the form of what looks like a “deer whistle” but the sound is made by a “death whistle.” If there’s one thing you don’t want to hear in the middle of the night, it’s this sound.
The sound design in general is one of the strongest aspects, and since there’s a limited amount of dialogue when we’re only focused on Adam, it becomes that more important. Graham sets up the horror sequences very well, and the scenes where the camera (with cinematography also done by Graham) just moves through the darkness and stays there triggered my fight or flight instincts. Just a simple moment of Adam’s door opening cheekily about six inches and then closing again is just… if I saw that in real life I would simply pass away.
That and the mythology of the demon and the isolation really created a tale that got under my skin and stayed there. The use of imagery in the film, especially that has to do with the deer and elk, is super creepy and often gorgeous in cinematography when these moments are captured.
As well, some recordings that Adam listens to throughout the film – that sound like warnings or just the religion of Sator as creepy exposition – are fascinating. These seem to be based on June’s writings, mixing the fact and fiction. There are scenes here where Nani talks about how she’s interacted with Sator, calling him a guardian and saying he’s spoken through her, mostly through automatic writing where Sator would talk to her and she would write down what he says. These moments are chilling and compelling simply hearing her talk about it.
The cast itself isn’t asked to give ground-breaking performances, but the cast is strong in roles where they could just be playing themselves because this feels so realistic. Due to that they’re not memorable, but in no way do they hurt the film.
As well, full kudos to Jordan Graham for being capable in so many roles – as writer, director, cinematographer, editor, producer and composer on the film, and those are just the roles he’s credited with on IMDb. In the film’s closing credits, we see his name and a list of roles that fill the entire screen.
I found the most effective aspect of Sator to be its build-up, as it has scary, scary moments that it leads to at the end of the second act. For me, in the film’s slow-burn nature, that’s where the film peaks. Of course, if it ended there the film would only be one hour – but that first hour is masterclass with its tension building, and it just arrests your attention completely. The third act is very strong, I just found it confusing and different from the rest of the film. There’s still great horror in this space, but it’s a different kind-of tension. This said, that’s no reason to skip out on Sator, as it is truly unsettling.
Sator was released on VOD on February 9, 2021 (but premiered at the Fantasia Film Festival in 2019).