The title of Jordan Graham’s second feature (following Specter, 2012) is initially mystifying, as befits a film structured as an enigmatic puzzle which the viewer must solve from narrative hints and breadcrumbs scattered in its primordial forest of meaning. A Latin word that originally meant a ‘sower’ (of seeds), and then came to be used as a poetic term for ‘father’ or ‘(divine) progenitor’, Sator famously appears in the so-called Sator Square (from which Chris Nolan also took the title for Tenet, 2020), whose palindromic riddle was used in folk magic. Sator, at least as it is pronounced in the film, also sounds both exactly like satyr, a horny woodland spirit of Greek mythology, and a bit like Satan. All these associations will converge in a folk horror where Sator is the name given to a demonic sylvan entity which appears to fill the voids left by an absent grandfather and father.
Adam (Gabe Nicholson) lives alone in that staple location of horror, a cabin in the woods. He is heavily bearded, withdrawn and wide-eyed, and as the story progresses, we will slowly piece together how he came to be in this strange exile. His Grandpa James died under mysterious circumstances, and his mother (Wendy Taylor) – who was mentally ill – disappeared shortly afterwards. His father is never mentioned. His kindly grandmother Nani (June Peterson), now a widow suffering dementia, still raves, albeit in measured tones, about the guardian spirit Sator who she claims talks to her and watches over everything, occasionally demanding rites of purificatory sacrifice. With young Adam beginning to show signs of inheriting his grandmother’s and mother’s mental illness, his sister Deborah (Aurora Lowe) had insisted that he move into his grandfather’s cabin, in order to get him away from his toxic domestic environment. This new setting, though, has hardly helped Adam. The dog that is his only companion goes missing, he constantly fills his head with tape recordings of his mother ranting (as her own mother does) about Sator, and occasional visits from his brother Pete (Michael Daniel) or from Pete’s otherworldly girlfriend Evie (Rachel Johnson) may be no more real than the bumps and creaks he hears in the night, or the animalistic intruders who begin crossing his threshold.
Like Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018) – although set in a very different social milieu – Sator plays upon the ambiguity between psychological breakdown and demonic invasion, as we share Adam’s cabin fever from the inside, with a panicky subjectivity that utterly confounds what is real and what is merely dreamt or imagined. As the film switches between Adam’s family home and his cabin, there is a contrast of different visual styles – the former scenes presented in black-and-white Academy-ratio like a claustrophobic home movie (and within those, another more flickery handheld monochrome suggestive of a slippery, prying point of view), the latter shot very wide in colour (yet somehow even more claustrophobic). It is hard to pin down where exactly in all this the truth lies, but collectively these scenes paint a bigger picture of a clan afflicted by madness and spiralling ever downward towards its own fiery destruction.
In the closing credits of Sator, two strands of text stand out. The first is this: “Created by Jordan Graham – producer, writer, cinematographer, editor, casting, production designer, makeup, costumes, cabin construction, gaffer, grip, camera operator, colorist, visual & special effects, sound designer & mixer, score.” That is quite the polyhyphenation, and indeed this extraordinary, unsettling feature really is one individual’s labour of love. Operating independently and on a low budget, Graham typically went onto location with a crew of just two other people, and spent some six years working entirely alone on the post-production. Such monomaniacal obsessiveness lends the film a palpably singular vision, while also aligning the filmmaker closely with his isolated, unraveling protagonist.
There is also this text, right at the end of the closing credits: “All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” It is a conventional enough disclaimer, and yet the cast credits have already informed us that Graham’s grandparents June ‘Nani’ Peterson (d. 2019) and James Peterson (d.2006) appeared as themselves. Of course the protagonist Adam is not Graham, and Nani was in reality only grandmother to one of them, and the story presented here is a fiction. Nonetheless the genesis for the project was the real Nani’s genuine belief, since 1968, in a spirit called Sator – a belief that would see her institutionalised for a while, and a name that she would continue to invoke even after Alzheimer’s had stopped her remembering the members of her own family. So there is a strong personal thread woven into the otherwise fictive fabric of Graham’s uncanny horror.
Adam’s hallucinatory experiences, realised in the glowing half light of torches or hurricane lamps, are exquisitely crafted (and canted) to maximise the impression of a skew-whiff perspective – and as winter moves in, so do the strange ghosts and antlered entities, edging everything, with Adam’s deterioration and retreat into delusion, towards the snowed-in territories of Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). Only at the very end will widescreen colour be allowed to enter Nani’s house, bringing with it the insanity – or is it something else? – that she has passed down to Adam, and that has finally come home to roost.
Presenting a world both utterly lived-in and eerily numinous, Sator shows a family’s tragic ruin in the face of a savage nature (that is perhaps just their own), while hedging its bets between the psychological and the supernatural. The years and care that Graham has spent calibrating these shadowy nuances have yielded something highly accomplished and uniquely unnerving, that will continue haunting your mind even after the precise details of its events have long since started to fade from your memory.
Sator is being released by Lightbulb Film Distribution on Digital Download here from 15th February & DVD from 22nd February.
© Anton Bitel