|Synopsis||Part horror and part documentary, a man living an isolated existence in the woods begins to sense the presence of Sator—a figure that haunted his family for years while they battled mental illness.|
|Length||1 hour, 25 minutes|
|Release Date||February 9, 2021|
|Starring||Gabriel Nicholson, June Peterson, Michael Daniel, Rachel Johnson, Aurora Lowe, Wendy Taylor|
Horror comes in many different forms and people watch the genre for many different reasons. Some love the pang of a jump scare and giggling with their friends once the moment is over. Others find the comedy in over-the-top deaths, or wish to challenge themselves in discovering the creepiest footage they can muster. Then there are some that use the genre as a way to grapple with the horrors found in real life. It’s partly the reason why true crime is so popular; audiences are fascinated in trying to understand how a murderer’s mind ticks.
Yet not all true horror stories are fixated on the darkness of human nature. Sometimes they are steeped in unexplainable experiences that lend a supernatural perspective. Like the true crime genre, these horror documentaries fire up the imagination, send chills down the spine, and humble the soul, reminding viewers that we still don’t know the answer for everything. Whether it’s David Paulides’ work as covered in Missing 411: The Hunted, or the testimonies found in I Know What I Saw, or even 2am binges of Netflix’s Haunted series, they all hold a unique place in the genre due to their lack of finality and chilling sincerity.
Enter Sator. It’s a film that’s half testimonial and half fiction; a blend between a search for answers and spinning a tale for the sake of entertainment. It’s a deeply personal story for director Jordan Graham, as he inserts documentary-style home video footage of his own grandmother to recount the times she encountered the titular entity. With fact and fiction working together, if there was ever a film to answer the question as to what is scarier—a well-told yarn or the terrifying truth—then Sator has the best chance of settling the debate.
Violence/Scary Images: Sator is a horror film and is intended to be disturbing for audiences. A dog disappears into the woods and cannot be found. There are a few jump scares. There are repeated real life conversations concerning an entity that comes to visit. A stabbing is committed on screen where lots of blood gushes and squirts out of the body. People scream as they are burnt alive. Unnatural levitation is depicted.
Language/Crude Humor: The f-bomb is dropped a handful of times. God’s name is used in vain once or twice.
Drug/Alcohol References: Alcohol is poured into a flask and swigged.
Sexual Content: None.
Spiritual Content: The main character wears a makeshift crucifix although there’s no mention of Christianity throughout the film. The entire premise is centered on real life events, where a family member hears whispers, practices automatic writing, speaks to and sees an entity named Sator. Whether there’s a supernatural presence or if it’s a mental illness can both be interpreted from the story. While Sator is neither an openly accepted or rejected entity, the film also does not glorify or encourage its worship.
Other Negative Content: Mental illness is a key player in this story, yet there seems to be little in way of getting professional help for the characters affected. Sufferers seem to be left in isolation. The main character is a deer hunter—no kills are shown.
Positive Content: Sator is a unique blend of fact and fiction, showcasing a story that is more grounded in its display of a demonic presence. It pushes the boundary of where mental illness ends and where a spiritual problem might begin.
Disclaimer: Geeks Under Grace received a screener copy for review purposes.
Sator is a difficult film to describe not just because of its documentary and narrative horror blend. Is it about mental illness? Or is it about a demonic presence? If it’s the latter, then Sator shares little in common with the demons portrayed in Hollywood. The documentary elements in Sator ground the film in a way that’s rarely seen in the horror genre, generating a lore that’s not steeped in fanciful archaic haunted objects or originating from morally bankrupt behaviour, but rather it depicts a natural stumbling into the world of the supernatural, a journey which many might relate.
Unconventional in its narrative structure, presentation and concept, the film might be best explained by director Jordan Graham himself:
“I belong to a family whose members heard voices. Whether these illusory sounds were due to mental illness, psychosis or a susceptibility to hearing some other-worldly communications will never be known. What is known is that the auditory “hallucinations” suffered by my grandmother, her mother, and even her mother’s mother ultimately resulted in psychiatric hospitalizations and, in my great-grandmother’s case, suicide. Yet, despite intensive psychiatric intervention, my grandmother insisted that the entity, Sator, was no figment of her imagination or the result of mental illness, but very real. Also very real in this film, despite its fictional premise, is my grandmother relating her unique and hauntingly personal experiences of these encounters while her memory of them was still intact. Sadly, since the film’s 2013 inception, dementia has removed most of her memories of me, her family, and of her participation in this film. Yet the one “person” whose memory she retains to this day in Sator.”
Sator is a film where knowing the director’s backstory only enhances the horror, and it would be interesting to hear about the viewing experiences of those who went in blind due to the movie’s minimalistic storytelling. Without knowing the history, does the film make sense? Sator is deliberately disorientating and offers an unsettling affair, chopping together two very distinct filming approaches.
For the majority of the film we follow Adam, a rather mute and restrained man, living alone in the woods with his dog. There is a constant sense of unease within his isolated existence, as he treks through the forest on the fruitless hunt for deer throughout the day and sleeping in a rickety old cabin during the night. Sator bides its time when it comes to establishing its world; it does still follow a traditional three act structure, as most movies do, though its opening section is overly long, as if allowing the audiences’ minds to go wild before offering up more context. When it does divulge information, it comes in the form of creepy audiotapes containing the true ramblings of “Nani”, which Adam fervently listens to almost as if to stave off his own sense of loneliness.
When Adam’s brother, Pete, pops in for a visit and gives Adam a lift back to the main farmhouse for supplies, the film changes in tone and style. It shifts in color to black and white, boxing the audience into a 4:3 aspect ratio. No doubt the choice stems mostly as a way to integrate and disguise the older real life footage with the fictional portion of the tale, but the fact it happens several times throughout the runtime and always with the farmhouse location subconsciously gives the impression this place holds a staggering amount of history. Practically the entire story’s surrounding context is delivered in these farmhouse scenes.
Pete converses with June Peterson—director Jordan Graham’s real grandmother—who is called “Nani” in the film even though she is merely playing herself. The interactions come across as a casual form the talking heads set up seen in many documentaries, where Nani recalls her own experiences due to Pete’s promptings. It’s rather fascinating to compare scripted scenes to conversations done ad-lib, because the latter contains an authenticity that cannot be replicated no matter the strength of the actor. Peterson’s words are candid and haunting in their honesty as she tries to make light some of the weirdest moments in her life, her innocence coming across as she mistakenly looks down the barrel of the camera once or twice during her interview scenes.
She’s not acting. She’s the real deal. So it’s chilling to witness this kind-hearted lady one minute, and the next to see footage of her nightly near-catatonic trances. While Sator offers a few traditional gory scares in its final ten minutes, one of the film’s most effective moments is merely a montage of manic writings and drawings supposedly dictated by this unknown entity. The content itself isn’t very scary, but when the thought finally kicks in that your typical production team didn’t construct these documents for the purposes of the movie and these are in fact authentic, a cold chill does drip down the spine and lingers in the bones. It is also helped by Graham’s editing choices; as if inspired by Kubrick’s The Shining, Jordan Graham makes bold and jarring cuts, adding to the disturbed nightmarish feel of the entire piece.
However it does beg the question as to why Sator couldn’t be reimagined as a pure documentary. The simple answer is that both the fictionalized and non-fictionalized material need each other in order to form a complete narrative. As interesting and creepy as Peterson’s journey is, her experience raises questions but offers no conclusion, at least not one that would give a sense of finality to a film. Believe it or not, documentaries still follow a three-act structure, except there’s more of a challenge to squeeze real life events into the traditionally accepted format. Meanwhile Sator couldn’t exist as a purely fictionalized piece merely inspired by true events, as it would take too long to establish the nuanced history of the titular figure and to reconfigure the audience’s Hollywood-shaped views regarding demonic entities. Peterson’s haunting real-life tales do work as a short cut in providing the necessary exposition while offering some fridge horror along the way.
Yet even the film’s fictionalized narrative moments are filmed like a documentary. I’m not talking about the talking heads style that does creep into the movie during the farmhouse scenes, but rather the intimate fly-on-the-wall aspect that has become popular in recent documentaries, such as Honeyland. It’s subtle, but there is a noticeable difference between Sator’s narrative storytelling and other slow burn horrors, and it’s to do with how the shoot has been organized. For example, ignoring the seasonal shifts that occur, if one were to boil down all the scenes in Sator into a shot list, it would resemble a feature that would take roughly two weeks to shoot. They’d pick a few places in the woods that are easily accessible, get an actor to perform the scene a few times, then move on before the 1st AD starts to nag about keeping to schedule.
Sator doesn’t have that “production squish” quality. Every shot feels lived in, as though Jordan Graham had the one thing many other directors don’t: time. There are many happy accidents in this film; a mosquito lands on Adam’s nose right as he’s about to shoot a deer, a shooting star streaks across a beautiful night sky as Adam watches on, snow falls from branches as if on cue, and there’s one shot where Pete playfully teases a wild coyote. These woods begin to form a character of their own where its dank leafy scent seems to permeate every from every image. It’s a level of detail that I haven’t seen since the naturalist documentary The Ancient Woods, which is essentially a film designed to be pretty. Sator is an absolutely gorgeous film to look at and it’s obvious Jordan Graham spent a vast amount of time with his cast, shooting oodles of footage so that only the best of the best were selected for the final product.
Jordan Graham took his time with this film because it was so personal to him, and his level of dedication is one of the greatest joys in watching this movie. His journey as a filmmaker is authentic in that it’s evident he created this film as a way to grapple and explore the many questions he’s always had surrounding his own family. The film is a product of this creative exploration where he crafts a message without any foregone conclusion. After watching a number of horror films such as Antebellum, Black Christmas, and The Craft: Legacy, where two-dimensional characters are merely tools to shove a pre-determined, almost propaganda styled message down the audience’s throats like Alien’s Ash with a rolled up magazine, Sator’s genuine search for answers feels utterly refreshing. Jordan Graham is using film as an outlet to share his story and worldview, going so far to even take on multiple crew roles (director, writer, music, editor and cinematographer). It’s a daunting task very few manage to pull off, and Jordan Graham is successful in his endeavor, and his reasons and approach to the art of filmmaking is one that I respect.
So it is a shame that many will find Sator to be a boring film. To be fair, Sator pleases me more from a filmmaking perspective than as a horror fan. It’s slowly paced and unassuming, relying on its atmospheric setting to create a sense of unease as opposed to depicting something horrific every few minutes. It’s the difference between getting scared about what might happen, compared with being frightened by the story’s actual events. So if you’re one who likes your Happy Death Day and Halloween action-packed horror, then Sator will leave you bored and disappointed. Yet if you adored twisted slow burners like The Witch, It Comes At Night, and metaphorically drenched stories like Relic, then Sator could be for you, granted it’s the most disorientating out of that list.
Similar to Hereditary, just when you begin to get a sense as to where this tale is headed, Sator throws the audience for a loop. It continuously challenges expectations. Sometimes it even changes perspective entirely. There is a metaphorical element to this story that creates an undercurrent of sadness. Sator’s presence is reminiscent of a person’s onset of schizophrenia, where characters casually ask each other if this figure has started appearing, as though it’s an accepted reality, one which might come for them one day. There are times when the name feels interchangeable with mental illness, and there’s a mortifying sense of familiarity as the cast regard the topic like the family’s albatross to bear.
As such, this film might be too confronting for those that are suffering with issues such as paranoia or schizophrenia, especially given the movie’s real life ties. As for Christian viewers, many may notice the figure’s devious and satanic nature; Sator presents himself as a saviour of sorts, though in reality he only ever desires destruction. Once again there’s that element of sadness to the tale; the movie is almost devoid of the Christian worldview, so it depicts a family being torn apart across generations by an entity that has grabbed a foothold and harmfully fulfils that spiritual emptiness. While there’s no Christian theology to operate as a push back against this satanic figure unlike your average Hollywood film concerning demons, there’s nothing about Sator that feels like a pro-demon story. Nothing good comes from him. If a viewer manages to get the message that Sator is a being to be worshipped, then that temptation to stray from Christ was seeded prior to watching the movie.
So if you’re into filmmaking, have the patience for a slow burn, and are curious to see a horror of a different sort, then Sator is worth the rent. It’s a heartfelt and gorgeously shot film that will sadly be passed off by some as merely a man walking around the woods for an hour when deep down there are many more layers to this harrowing family saga.
+ Genuine and authentic in its storytelling
+ Gorgeous cinematography
+ Wonderfully atmospheric
+ The blending of real life events add that extra creep factor
+ No cheap jump scares
- The slow pacing will bore some viewers
- Disjointed and disorientating with its storytelling; will lose some viewers
- Suffers from exposition dumps due to its non-traditional style
The Bottom Line
Sator is the rare film that is not only crewed by a single person, but successfully manages to marry two completely different styles of storytelling. It’s authentic and genuinely tries to grapple with its subject matter, though while many film connoisseurs may respect the director’s intent, Sator won’t satiate the average horror fan’s desire for more action and bloodshed.