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‘Sator’ Review: Something’s in the woods, and in the mind

Writer-director Jordan Graham did much more than write and direct over the seven-year production of this effectively creepy backwoods tale.
Credit: 1091 Pictures

Something’s lurking in the woods in Jordan Graham’s bone-rattling, unsettlingly patient new horror tale, “Sator,” and Adam (Gabriel Nicholson) isn’t leaving until he finds out what it is. 

Having set up deer cameras in the dense forest surrounding a tiny lodge to capture images that he closely examines every night, Adam spends his days carefully exploring the area with his dog at his side, his rifle slung over his shoulder and the most monstrous-sounding whistle you’ve ever heard being blown on his lips. His eyes are constantly searching, constantly scanning, constantly focusing on every slight movement behind a tree or bush. They’re also bloodshot, darkened with the pursuit of obsession that’s been passed down through his family. This is no mere story of some mysterious entity constantly teasing its presence to Adam; it’s a tête-à-tête, and he’s trying to find what he’s looking for before it finds him. 

What exactly he’s searching for has the upper hand, however, because the only thing he knows about it is its name: Sator, a mysterious boogeyman that’s embedded itself in his grandmother’s mind, and the mind of her mother before her. Not in any way that would necessitate the hiring of an exorcist, mind you, but rather as a figure constantly being brought up by her as if it were a casual acquaintance—though decidedly more antagonistic. “Admit yourself to him; trust in him completely, he will make you pure,” we hear her calmly assert in audio recordings that Adam listens to in his own evening ritual. If “Sator” was any other movie, we’d be spending the 85-minute runtime screaming at him to get the hell out of dodge while he still can. But that would do little to ease his fears while Sator is still on his grandmother’s mind. 

At first glance, this narrative infrastructure would seem like little more than Graham creatively positing that casual sermon about unseen malevolent forces is more creepily observed when it’s coming from the elderly rather than the tinny voices of young children. Sure enough, those scratchy recordings of Adam’s grandmother sound like nails scratching across tree bark, and they represent just one element of the film’s expertly frightful soundscape. But “Sator” is a much more personal story than it would suggest, because Graham has been in Adam’s shoes; in his director’s statement, he discusses how the women in his own family experienced “auditory hallucinations” revolving around an unseen presence named Sator, who remained a fixture in his grandmother’s mind even after she lost her other memories due to dementia. 

“Sator” is the product of that experience, filtered through the secondhand perspective of someone who can only ever imagine what was going through his grandmother’s mind when her musings returned to the figure her relatives never saw. To his credit, Graham never attempts to diagnose her in his screenplay—Adam serves as protagonist and audience proxy as he attempts to find whatever Sator is, if a physical manifestation exists at all. By and large, those searches make up the bulk of the movie, one that rises a respectable distance beyond your typical things-go-bump-in-the-dark offering thanks to an air-tight control of tension and some memorable high-contrast images sprinkled throughout what is, broadly, a gorgeously shot movie filled with murky atmosphere and pesky shadowplay. 

That “Sator” is crafted with such finesse is a testament to Graham’s beguiling level of commitment to the seven-year production of his movie. Here, he’s not just director and screenwriter, but also the credited producer, composer, cinematographer, editor, sound designer and set builder. The feat is impressive, and it’s made all the more credible by how big screen-worthy of a frightfest “Sator” is. Graham is a trickster of a scene-builder here; “Sator” is stuffed with peer-through-your-fingers sequences, but in a movie structured around such potent mystery, peering through your fingers may mean missing an important visual clue that Graham’s camera doesn’t always zero in on. It’s a mischievous accomplishment, and one that makes the more annoyingly traditional jump scares elsewhere in the movie go down a bit easier. 

Credit: 1091 Pictures

When “Sator” isn’t honing its terror – which, for this critic, reached its fever pitch out during a nighttime sprint through the woods that briefly recalls the thrilling unease of “The Blair Witch Project” – it’s attempting to refine its capital-S story, but plot doesn’t entirely dovetail with the horror of it all. Adam and his brother, Pete (Michael Daniel), frequently visit their grandmother in scenes that shrink the frame and drain it of color before we’re swept up into memories of birthday parties and family interactions from years past. There’s a natural pull in these moments (especially considering Graham has said some of what we see is actual archival footage of his family) but they can also frustratingly lack a clarity as to how one character we see is related to another, or how one journey through the home is or isn’t revealing images of their younger selves. 

It’s perhaps partially the point to get lost in the paranoia – maybe it’s Graham’s way of compressing a lifetime of confusion for the audience – but these are also the only points in the film where narrative intrigue or aesthetic spookiness cracks under one or two too many layers of ambiguity. Still, “Sator” remains a beguiling watch through and through, and as ambiguity slowly evolves into bloody brutality in the final act, Graham’s movie becomes a fascinating showcase of a storyteller reckoning with an inexplicable part of his life. Just don’t take a picnic in these woods—not that you’d want to.

"Sator" is not rated. It's now available to rent on various VOD platforms. 

Starring: Gabriel Nicholson, Michael Daniel, Aurora Lowe, Rachel Johnson 

Directed by Jordan Graham

2021

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