“Sator” Review – Dense Atmosphere & Abstract Horror With Personal Touch

Cleaning out a storage space within a family member’s home can lead you to some nostalgic buried treasures you may not have seen in some time. But in the case of director Jordan Graham (“Specter”),  his digging around unleashed some disturbing, enigmatic pieces of family history that manifests in his indie horror feat, “Sator.” His sophomore feature is a collection of abstract ideas and haunting omens that can struggle to form a cohesive whole, but is no less fascinating.

On the surface, “Sator” is about a man named Adam (Gabriel Nicholson) and his brother Pete (Michael Gabriel), who live a simple, uncluttered life in a cabin in the woods. In between calling to something with a screeching resonating chamber, the pair visit their Nani (June Peterson), where she mentions an otherworldly presence talking to her. When nighttime hits the cabin, Adam is susceptible to all manner of bumps in the night that may or may not bear a connection to the spirit that speaks to Nani. But this is where things get interesting.

Graham’s 86-minute, non-linear nightmare was not what he had originally set out to make, according to an interview with Bad Feeling Magazine’s Gabriel Sigler. “Sator” had intended to be something else, but once he focused the camera on his grandmother, everything changed. Despite Peterson slowly deteriorating from dementia, she could vividly remember being in communication with a spirit she called Sator, as did her mother and so on. And after discovering a 1,000 page journal detailing her relationship with the enigmatic folk demon, Graham’s film set a new path for itself. “Sator” is, ultimately, a three-way mix of isolation horror, minimalist dread and raw home video footage stitched together. And that’s where I believe the cracks start to show. 

Your mileage will vary on how engaged you are with what’s presented on the screen without this history. “Sator” takes on a whole new meaning once you listen to Graham talk about its haunting deconception, and it is. It makes you wonder what sort of influence Sator had over Peterson that she struggled to remember conversations from the day before, yet can recall countless interactions with the titular demon. “I was told to write by a spirit,” Peterson eerily says about her guardian. 

“Sator” I Photo Credit – 1091 Pictures

There appears to be a present battle between the film Graham had originally envisioned and the changes made to fit Peterson into the picture. “Sator” acts as an indie cousin to such recent horror films as “Relic” and “Hereditary” in terms of wielding the human horrors of the mind, and how it affects those closest to them, though it’s not as rigidly structured as either film. 

I must admit the film’s presentation threw me off on my initial viewing, prompting a follow-up to make sure I saw certain things as they were presented. “Sator” lacks a central character who we can invest ourselves in. Adam rarely speaks, and Nicholson’s jumpy reactions to creepy rumblings in and outside of his home is the closest I found myself to inhabiting his point of view. Graham keeps the titular demon’s impetus vague at best, utilizing Nicholson’s insert character to act as our guiding force when confronted by the spirit, presented as an imposing figure of fur and bones. He is purposefully a character kept at arm’s length, and for myself, that decision kept me distanced as well. 

Gabe Nicholson in “Sator” I Photo Credit – 1091 Pictures

I adore minimalist slow burns. “Sator” preys on the frightening notion of what lies in the shroud of darkness, looking back at us and not liking what it sees. On a primal level, this film features  the hallmarks of snapping branches and creaking floorboards that indisputably triggered my “flight” response. Aesthetically speaking, “Sator” provides a dense, chilling atmosphere felt throughout, at times evocative of “The Witch.” The drab, grayed-out forest landscape, cabin lit by candlelight, an unforeseen force taunting our protagonist senseless — the clear influences are all there, although nowhere near as strong. Graham no doubt has a flair for dread and some subtle scares that strike just as let your guard down. 

I really go back and forth with this one.  There’s a lot I’ve grown to admire about “Sator.” Given Graham’s seven-year commitment to the project, this is a pretty miraculous turnout that gave me the chills on more than a few occasions. “Sator” no doubt feels like a translation of Graham’s own familial nightmare that we just so happened to barge in on. An emotional resonance is baked into the film’s DNA, but from an outside perspective, it doesn’t quite hit the mark as well as it intends. 

Feature Image: June Peterson in “Sator” / Photo Credit – 1091 Pictures

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