Now available on VOD services, seeping creeper Sator is the passion project of Jordan Graham, who wears no less than 17 hats here, from writer and director to set builder and makeup artist. It makes sense, since the movie is based on the strange ramblings of his grandmother, June Peterson, who claimed to channel a spirit demon? named Sator, who compelled her to unconsciously scrawl reams of words and pictures on paper. She even plays herself in the film, which blends truth and fiction in a profoundly unsettling manner. So is it another BOATS (Based On A True Story) movie? Yes, sort of, in maybe a way youve never quite seen before.
The Gist: Black and white footage: An old womans hands scribble sentence after sentence after sentence. Her eyes are blank. A house full of lit candles. Mutters and whispers. What are they saying? You probably dont want to know. A bonfire. A woman appears to levitate over it. Now, color: Adam (Gabriel Nicholson) lives alone in an arcadian cabin deep in the forest. He has a gun, a dog, maybe a little bit of electricity, and a deer cam that might also be a demon cam, were not quite sure yet. He walks in the woods and blows a dog whistle, but it might also be a demon whistle, were not quite sure about that yet, either. He sits in the cabin accompanied only by some staring taxidermy animals, listening to old cassettes of a womans crazy rantings about Sator. Thats his mother the voice, not Sator. We hear words like cleanse and purify and burnt offering. This is the type of life that seems like a great way to work on yourself, find yourself and/or freak yourself right the eff out.
Adam has a brother, Pete (Michael Daniel), who stops by for a sniff of moonshine and to barely say anything. Nobodys much for speaking many words around here, and when they do, theyre murmured and mumbled so we have to lean in real close to decipher them. They visit their grandmother, Nani (Peterson), whose mind seems to have seen better days. She doesnt even recognize Pete. She speaks of an entity named Sator like hes a family friend who drops by for coffee now and again, and is on the Christmas card list. Sator would enter Nanis brain and make her do lots and lots of automatic writing. She calls him her guardian. He seems like the type of old god who demands blood sacrifice and could really use a hug. He also has something to do with the disappearance of Pete and Adams mother. Maybe shes dead. Maybe shes the levitating woman. I bet shes the levitating woman. Where shes levitated off to, god or Cthulhu or Ninnghizhidda or Sator only knows.
There are two other women in this story, Evie (Rachel Johnson) and Deborah (Aurora Lowe), one of whom is Pete and Adams sister, or maybe theyre all siblings, Im not sure its ever made clear. But we keep seeing the old B/W home-movie footage of Nani or the mother in some state of agitation or psychological unrest in between scenes of Adam Hearing Shit in the forest, and then some right there in the cabin. He shines his flashlight around and finds nothing but an invisible presence, maybe some evidence of something having been there, or maybe it was just a puma or bigfoot. Then his dog runs off never to be seen again. You or I wed have been out of there long ago, headed for the nearest Motel 6, but not Adam, because maybe he wants to not just find some answers about his mother and grandmother, but also finds Sators magnetism compelling. And then something IS actually in his living room, and its wearing a deer skull and fur pelt and robe, and whether he peers at it and says, Mom?, I wont say, because NO SPOILERS TODAY, MY FRIEND.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Sator is The Witch meets The Blair Witch Project in the First Cow cabin. It also has the miniscule-budget auteur vision along the lines of Trey Edward Shults Krisha.
Performance Worth Watching: Petersons performance is riveting and strange shes clearly playing herself, but its hard to tell if shes even aware that shes in a fictionalized movie about her unusual experiences.
Memorable Dialogue: Pete engages in gross understatement: I still think Grandpa Jim sacrificed himself. You know there was some weird shit going on there.
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: We get not one, but two shots of a Northern California banana slug oozing its way across the mossy forest floor, an image that aptly reflects Sators pacing all the better to let us marinate in the movies eerie necro-vibes, and piss off all the bloodthirsty horror-movie mavens who thought nothing happened during The Witch. (Note: A lot happened during The Witch. SO MUCH happened during The Witch!) Graham deploys atmosphere by the bulldozer-bucketful, army-crawling through the bare-bones plot, adding some familiar creeping-dread elements and freaky imagery to a deeply personal family story rooted in his grandmothers apparent mental illness.
So this is an uncomfortable watch on a couple levels. Purely as a scary movie, it quite effectively induces dread during spooky-spectral scenes in a dim-lit cabin or the pitch-black woods. The film trafficks in sonic manipulation, Graham dialing back the ominous drones of many horror outings and emphasizing all the creaks and groans of the wind in the trees, hissing cassette tapes, unidentified screeching, the sound of air being forced through the dog whistle and chirping nighttime frogs, even turning a clicking laptop hard drive into a cue for goosebumps. His cinematography is gorgeous, finding the beauty and menace in the lush green forest beneath a midnight-blue sky; importantly, its also patient, slow-panning us into a case of the creeps instead of quick-cutting us into confusional mayhem.
Plot-wise, Sator aims for suggestive but ends up halfway between Vagueville and Mystifying City. It maintains our curiosity but isnt particularly satisfying in a conventional or unconventional sense (although Ill give it its final shot, which leaves us troubled and uneasy). Thats mostly OK though, because the point isnt What Happens, but rather Check Out These Vibes. It also gives us a real-life portrait of mental illness offering another level of discomfort is the movie a poignant look at Grandma Nanis strange condition, or exploitation of same? Both seem to be true.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Sator is a strange outing, the work of a filmmaker skilled in a number of technical visual storytelling skills, using them to churn up some chillingly moody ambience.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com or follow him on Twitter: @johnserba.
Where to stream Sator
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Reviewed and Recommended by Erik Baquero