There’s something in the forest. But at the same time, there’s nothing much at all. A man, a cabin and maybe—maybe—something more. Sator, a mumblecore horror somewhere between a modern-day The Witch, The Blair Witch Project and Lovecraft, is a striking second feature from Jordan Graham. It’s the kind of horror that trades jump scares for negative space, one that opens with imagery your typical A24 beast saves for its finale. Sator’s dedication to its own nuanced premise, location and tense pace make it the rare horror that’s so aesthetically well-realized you feel like you could crawl inside and live there—if it wasn’t so goddamn scary.
Sator is a name, an evocation, an entity. He’s first described, by Nani (the late June Peterson, excellent), as a guardian. Nani’s known Sator (whatever he may be) for a long time. The film represents shifts in time, and the physical transportation to places soaked in memories, with an aspect ratio change and a black-and-white palette. Nani’s lovely longhand script is practiced well from a lifetime of automatic writing, with the words—including some of the opening company credits, which is a great little joke—pouring from her pen and claiming a headwater not of this world. That same paranormal river flows to her grandson Adam (Gabriel Nicholson), that aforementioned man in the woods, whose relationship with the voices in his head is a bit less comfortable.
Nicholson leads the film with a gripping, near-silent performance as he goes about his day—checking his deer-cam for signs of life, exploring with his dog, always on the lookout for Sator’s approach—which makes the actual construction of the film so impressive. The tight trip melding the occult and the threats of one’s own mind is all due to Graham, who seems to have done effectively everything on the film: I’ve never seen a credits listing like his, which is about a paragraph long. You want to talk auteurism? Graham says analyze this. Writer/director/editor is one thing, but try “colorist,” “camera operator” and—for crying out loud—”cabin construction” on for size. This one-man-band means that everything feels of a piece and, for the most part, you can’t hear Graham struggling to heft all the instruments.
In fact, you hear exactly what he wants you to. There’s an undercurrent of constant voices on the soundtrack, played from recorded tapes of Adam’s mother (who heard voices in a much less amiable way than Nani) and erupting from the ether. The meticulous sound design, match-cutting on sound effects and using a particularly upsetting dog whistle as a delightfully smart callback, means that Graham was certainly thinking about his audio. That might not be initially apparent due to the dialogue-low mumble mix, which especially comes up with Adam’s alcoholic, Boomhauer-like brother, Pete (Michael Daniel). When we’re trying to figure out what the hell’s actually going on in the story, which is both supernatural and groundedly familial, catching every third word muddies already unclear waters and might cause you to crank your volume. While this choice eventually contributes to the overall tone of the film—confused, isolated, caught between competing sensory inputs—it comes at the early expense of our patience.
But Sator rewards patience with a horror fan’s sense for slow-burn scares and some of the best-looking shots the genre has to offer. The film is beautiful, detailed and framed with a National Geographic eye that benefits as much from camera placement as it does some impressive location scouting. If every horror filmmaker ventured out to giant downed trees, foreboding and overgrown stone walls, and waterfall caves, well, maybe there wouldn’t be so many bland haunted house movies. It’s in these locations that Graham explores both the unknowable possibility of the darkness and the impossible potential of the green. The lush daylight verdantry is as overwhelming as the spookiness of night: Just like snorkeling in the middle of the ocean and seeing the endlessly vast organic swirl beneath, there is a cosmic horror to Sator’s wilderness.
Graham does play in the dark, though, and when he does it’s as smart as it comes: Short bursts of dreamy contrast, like a single star blinking in the emptiness, are balanced with long stretches of blurred chaotic underbrush that could convincingly mask…anything. From the experimental (stark visions of isolation with the frame suspiciously focused on what’s going on in the night sky) to the traditional (an immaculately blocked cabin-invasion sequence as Sator’s influence closes in on Adam), Sator uses every tool on the bench to construct its dread. Part of that is its respect for its audience: It’s constantly unsettling without being cheap, with primal, jarring design—like the Manson family raided a national park’s visitor center of its pelts and bones—and a sharp understanding of what gaps are better left filled by our own imaginations. A forest is scary, but then the camera tilts up and…? Is there anything there? Was there anything?
A brutal finale that’s not quite as effective as its creeping, sneaking crescendo offers some more traditional pay-offs to our questions, but Sator is most effective in its folkloric, unknowable mystery. Bolstering its strength is its thematic echoes to the isolation, lack of understanding and fear of yourself inherent in some mental illnesses, passed down through generations. It’s a stark, bold, even compassionate film—which offers imperfectly planted details of a battered and bruised family at its core—with plenty to comprehend (or at least theorize about) for those brave enough to venture back into the forest for a rewatch. As scary as it is, Sator is an experience with enough layers and craftsmanship that its alluring call will rattle in your head long after you’ve turned it off.
Director: Jordan Graham
Writer: Jordan Graham
Stars: Michael Daniel, Rachel Johnson, Aurora Lowe, Gabriel Nicholson, June Peterson
Release Date: February 9, 2021 (Digital)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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