Written & Directed by Jordan Graham
This film is utterly uninterested in hand-holding you through the experience and explaining every little detail through exposition. In that way, it is a perfect example of what cinema does best, telling stories through images. But, it certainly helps to understand the behind-the-scenes story of the production. Knowing those details enhances the experience so that you can understand why it was made this way. I still think there are plenty of mysteries hidden here, but a little history can go a long way when a film is as cryptic as this one is.
The film opens on a disturbing tableau. An old man lies unconscious in front of his rural mountain home. The front porch and the interior are decorated with small candles. An old woman sits up in her bed staring blankly at nothing. In another room, a middle-aged woman is surrounded by papers. The soundtrack is composed of whispered chants in an unknown language. The middle-aged woman pours gasoline on the old man and lights him up. Then she ascends into the dark night sky. Did this really happen? Are these just bad dreams? The film intentionally obfuscates this, but it reflects something that really happened to the characters.
Cut to the present day, where Adam is living in a cabin in the woods. He goes out with his dog and hunting rifle, but he doesn’t seem to be stalking deer. A deer camera mounted to a tree near his cabin is checked, and the SD card is pulled. But it appears to be broken, not taking a single image during the night. Adam is visited by his brother Pete who tells him to come up to Nani’s house and see if grandpa left some other SD cards around before he died. This is when we make the connection. Nani was the old woman sitting up, and grandpa was the man we saw get burned to death. The woman who did the burning was Adam and Peter’s mother, and she disappeared after that night.
The story begins to reveal that Adam has become obsessed with contacting Sator. Nani claims Sator is an entity that has spoken to her for years, leading to reams of automatic writing that at best resembles some barely legible text. Adam’s mother also became obsessed with Sator, but her expression came in the form of stream of consciousness cassette tape recordings where she preaches about how the being will enter a person’s life and transform them completely. When Adam walks through Nani’s house, we see through his perspective, which resembles an old camcorder, remembering scenes he may have been present for or just imagined.
This is a horror movie that pays off, but it is a slow burn to get there. The visuals are stunning, taking full advantage of Northern California and its connections to the Pacific Northwest more than the state’s central and southern parts. The forest feels alive and menacing, and when entities begin appearing to Adam, they aren’t made up in garish prosthetics. The demons are composed of animal furs and bones, and Sator himself only appears in the third act, but his presence is felt throughout.
The film’s backstory comes from the fact that Jordan Graham’s real grandmother plays Nani in the movie. She does an excellent job for being a non-actor. He was 100 days into shooting his original conception of Sator, which Graham admits was a pretty stock satanic horror film. His grandmother comes on set for a cameo and, while she’s there, starts talking about her own supernatural experiences growing up, specifically her contact with a guardian spirit she calls Sator. Graham’s family has a history of hearing voices, possible dementia, and this stuck with him. He threw out his script and started over from scratch, rewriting the entire film transforming his stock possession movie into one about a family entangled with an evil presence or possibly just dementia passed down through generations.
Sator certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, and I definitely had issues with some of the pacing and redundancy of moments. Overall, it is a perfect mood piece that finds a way to remain ambiguous while still delivering answers to viewers that are paying attention. I thought a lot about The Dark and The Wicked while watching Sator, thinking about how this movie got things right that the former stumbled through. There are no empty jumpscares in Sator. When something frightening happens, it has a reason for being there, and it moves the story forward.