The 2019 Fantasia Film Festival audience had no idea what was in store for them when they sat down to see Jordan Graham’s chilling, psychological horror Sator. The film follows a man who lives in a cabin, isolated from the world who has come to discover the stories his grandmother used to tell about an otherworldly spirit may be more true than he had once believed. Graham has more credits on Sator than you could imagine including writing, directing, cinematography, and editing. There doesn’t seem to be a single aspect of the film that Graham didn’t have his hands on, which is no doubt why the film has taken roughly 5 years to finish. Personal projects require more attention and can sometimes be harder to release out into the world, but it’s impossible to deny the power of that patience when you see it on screen.
Sator also stars a very limited, comprised mostly of Gabe Nicholson, Michael Daniel, and June Peterson as the grandmother in communication with a spirit that has loomed large of the entire family for three generations.
“…deeply haunting and as unnerving as the worst nightmare you ever lived through”
In a remote cabin surrounded by trees for miles, Adam (Gabe Nicholson) spends his days hunting with his dog and checking a deer cam for evidence of movement in the night. His brother Pete (Michael Daniel) is the only person that visits him, occasionally driving him out to see their grandmother Nani (June Peterson). Nani lives by herself in the same woods, widowed after the death of her husband some years ago. In his private time, Adam pours over tape recordings of Nani talking about a spirit she calls Sator that talks to her, watches over her, and teaches her about herself and the people around her. The mental illness we assume affects Nani might also have affected Gabe & Adam‘s mother but no one seems to talk too much about her, except to say that they don’t believe “what happened to her” happened the way everyone believes it happened.
In the quietest moments, when no one else is around, Gabe is visited by memories and dreams of his mother and a strange spirit of his own. With minimal dialogue, we’re left to extract the emotion of these visitations from Gabe, and while he rarely shows it on his face, these interactions with Sator are pure terror. It’s a strange thing to sit, and be comfortable with fear, but it’s what Sator does best. There are no traditional scares for the majority of the film, but the mood and atmosphere is deeply haunting and as unnerving as the worst nightmare you’ve ever lived through.
In recent years, independent horror has been gifted with some truly haunting MumbleGore films like Patrick Brice’s anxiety-ridden Creep (2014), and Robert Eggers’ instant classic The Witch (2015). These films are character-driven stories that rely on dialog or atmosphere to drive plot, forgoing traditional story structure to move audiences from opening to closing credits. The choices that define the subgenre are made in response to its restraints. MumbleGore typically uses single locations, non-professional actors and equipment, making the films seem more like documents of a fictional happening than quote/unquote movies. It’s a quality that I’ve always appreciated because it made them feel real, like I was a fly on the wall of something no one was ever expected to see. It also made the films feel personal, and with everyone on the projects working a handful of jobs each to bring the movie to life, they kind of always are personal.
Jordan Graham’s Sator (not unlike other films the MumbleGore arena) is a deeply personal film that not only borrows from the real-life darkness of his own family but also blends in home video footage that adds an eerie, tangible quality to the horror at the core of the story. The film is a nightmare that lures you deeper and deeper into it’s dark recesses. And while some viewers may come away wishing the film did “more”, what it does it does really, really well. Whether you’re aware going into Sator just how personal of a story the film is, you feel immediately that you are witnessing a horror built on a person’s own experiences. The fear in Sator is primal, and just like cattle somehow understanding that the room beyond the steel slaughterhouse door will dead to certain death, the hairs on the back of your neck know before you do that this is not a safe place.
“The fear in Sator is primal…the hairs on the back of your neck know before you do that this is not a safe place.”
Sator celebrated its world premiere at the 2019 Fantasia Film Festival Sunday, July 21. The Fantasia Film Festival runs until August 1, 2019 in beautiful Montreal, Canada. Click HERE to check out all of our continued coverage of the festival, and be sure to follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook to see silly photos, immediate film reactions, and the occasional photo of lunch.