FILM REVIEW: SATOR
I asked myself a question the other day: will deer skulls ever not be absolutely terrifying? My answer is still, “no, get those things away from me.” They are creepy as hell, as Jordan Graham‘s folk horror film SATOR substantiates. The film is a backwoods nightmare wherein the forest and family secrets are plagued by demons- both literal and within. I originally saw SATOR at Fantastic Film Festival in Sydney back in early 2020. If I’m honest, at the time, I was less than blown away. However, now that the film is out now on VOD, my second watch had me swallowing my previous words.
It isn’t easy to write a plot outline for SATOR. It is a complicated film that has so many things happening at once, all resulting in events that are too good to give away, but here goes: Adam lives in a secluded hunting cabin where he hears voices. He constantly listens to indoctrinating monologues on a tape deck that tells him to “submit yourself to Sator.” His brother keeps an eye on him, and they regularly visit their grandmother- who also happens to be a conduit for Sator. Adam begins to see things in the trees, and the demonic whisperings grow deafening as he pulls further away from his family.
“Based on real events” is often only a marketing tactic to make the audience as invested as possible. But for SATOR, it actually rings true. Our clairvoyant, Grandma Noni, is director Jordan Graham’s real grandmother, and her interviews are taken from home video footage woven seamlessly into the events of the film. She earnestly tells her grandsons and, therefore, the viewer about her “guardian” Sator’s voice in her head. We see her scribbled “automatic writing”, and this added legitimacy works as intended. It’s just such a creative way to conceptualize a horror movie.
SATOR is a slow burn, ramping up to a more traditional horror with increasingly occult visuals. I think it works in the film’s favour, but others may find it tedious- even though the film is only an hour and 25 minutes. In saying that, films such as THE VVITCH and THE BLACKCOAT’S DAUGHTER (aka February) are heralded for their minimalist approach. Perhaps SATOR should be too. These films are apt comparisons, even down to similar iconography.
At times SATOR requires a bit of work to watch. The film’s dialogue is sparse and never completely reveals what is happening. Our main character hardly speaks, and the others mumble so much that I considered turning on subtitles. On the other hand, I suppose this adds to the overall mood. Whether SATOR’s hidden scares happening in the background are too subtle or effectively chilling is something you will have to decide for yourself.
It also explores the insidious onset of mental illness and its toll on families. SATOR brings forth the helpless feeling of inevitability family members experience as their relatives slip away. It’s sad to watch and also somehow all the more terrifying for its rawness. Clearly, a deeply personal film to the director- who also happens to take on every other role involved in creating the film.
SATOR is dark, atmospheric and unsettling. Contributing to this is its breathtaking use of its filming location, Yosemite National Park, CA. The isolating, hauntingly beautiful forest shots combined with the complete lack of sunlight and palpable cold make the film a melancholic fever dream to experience.
If the film feels experimental, that’s because it is. But if you embrace its more avant-garde side, you will be rewarded with a fresh entry into the folk horror subgenre that is recently ever-expanding. It doesn’t deserve to fly under anyone’s 2021 radar. SATOR is being released in North America by 1091 Pictures and is available to stream or purchase from various platforms here!
“SATOR is dark, atmospheric and unsettling.”
4 Tombstones out of 5…