Sator REVIEW – A Truly Immersive Experience

Sator is a slow yet entrancing and affecting horror movie.


Sator shares a similar aesthetic to many folk horror classics. Bones and antlers of various woodland creatures decorate the sets, candles flicker and faintly illuminate dark rooms and hallways, and a distinctly dour Southern Gothic style permeates the entire piece. The gloomy and foreboding forest – the central setting of the film – hasn’t looked quite as menacing since Robert Eggers’ The Witch, or Hiro Murai’s “Woods” episode of Atlanta.

But perhaps the most apt comparison (if Sator can be compared to anything at all) would be The Blair Witch Project, as both films are more about creating a mood and an atmosphere rather than offering a generic linear narrative. Its scares come more from the power of suggestion, from the things that you don’t see, and its imagery is more haunting and melancholic than directly gorey or terrifying.

To simply call this a horror movie would be doing it a great disservice, as it’s apparent within the first few minutes that this is something more. On its own, Sator is a slow yet entrancing and affecting experience. But it’s the real-life story behind the scenes that makes it fascinating, and all the more frightening.

The film plays coy and loose with its plot, but the focus is on Adam (Gabriel Nicholson), a bearded and reserved loner who lives in a cabin out in the woods with his dog. An almost entirely silent protagonist, Adam spends his days trekking through the forest in search of something. Before departing back home for the night, he blows into an ominous-sounding whistle, perhaps in hopes that it’ll draw out whatever it is he’s seeking amongst the trees.

Inside his dimly lit cabin, he constantly checks on the deer cams he has set up throughout the woods. As his sunken face pores over the images, and as the film’s unnerving silence and creeping sense of dread envelops the scene, you’re not exactly looking forward to when something inevitably shows up on those cameras.

Eventually, Adam’s brother Pete (Michael Daniel) comes to visit. Through his weary and aghast face, we’re able to determine that this isn’t exactly normal Adam behavior. So much of Sator is told through the facial expressions of its small cast rather than through dialogue, and it’s a testament to the actors how much it works. Adam appears to have an unhealthy obsession with tracking down whatever he thinks is in the woods, and we come to learn that this is a – God? Spirit? Monster? – thing that has been a constant presence in his family going back generations.

As the brothers go to check in on their grandmother, Nani (June Peterson), the film switches to a handheld, black-and-white style. Time does indeed feel a bit fractured at Nani’s house – she’s suffering from dementia, misplacing and forgetting things, but still vividly has a grasp on her connection with an entity named Sator. She describes it as a frightening being (the drawings are solid nightmare fuel) but a benevolent one, even calling it a guardian of sorts. She’s been hearing its voice in her mind her entire life, as did her own mother and grandmother.

Adam seems to think differently of Sator. Every night he plays recordings of his long-lost mother, who also heard Sator’s voice until it presumably drove her mad. Perhaps he’s looking to confront it, maybe he only wants answers, but it’s a quest that his family thinks is bound for self-destruction. Whether Sator is real or all in Adam’s head is constantly in question, but Pete’s genuine concern for his brother’s well-being is something that is very real. Sator is the story of a family broken by grief, one that offers a rather grim take on the deep recesses of where people’s minds might go in the wake of tragedy.

To say that this film is a personal one would be the understatement of the year. To call it a passion project feels insulting. Sator feels like an artistic expression that was demanding to be let out. After spending years in development, it’s the culmination of work from creator Jordan Graham, who quite literally did everything on this movie except act. And yes, that goes from writing and directing to casting and set building to cinematography and editing.

Graham even composed the score, although it’s more an array of sonic sounds and textures. Whispers and the recordings of Adam’s mother are built into the soundscape, and they’re accompanied by truly gorgeous shots: Deep colors fill the screen as breathtaking but eerie sunrises and sunsets pass by. Moss covered railroad tracks leave small signs of what was here before and is now being reclaimed by nature. A flowing river, something that would usually signify life, instead appears as a deep, black abyss.

For something put together almost entirely by one person, Sator is as professional as any film can look or be. Or perhaps it’s because this is the labors of a single artistic vision that it’s so engrossing.

Some viewers may find Sator’s crawling pace and vague storytelling to be a detriment, and it may fight to hold your attention at times, but it’s shocking final act is likely to regain it. The film is partly based on the real stories of June Peterson, who plays Nani and is Graham’s actual grandmother. Sator is quite real to Graham’s family.

For Peterson, it’s almost all she can remember as her memory starts to fade. The scenes involving her appear in a home video format, almost as if Graham was secretly filming his grandmother over the years to capture moments of her recanting her experiences with her spiritual guardian. It only adds to the film’s disquieting style.

What Graham has accomplished here is astounding. Despite what some may feel about the murkiness of its story, Sator is a fascinating and impressive feat of filmmaking. I only wish that I had been able to view it on the big screen; there’s little doubt that it would make for a truly immersive experience, especially with that impeccable sound design. Whichever way you watch it though, you’re bound to be hearing Sator’s whispers in your head long after the credits roll.

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Jordan Graham's Sator is a deeply unnerving descent into dread and terror that engulfs in its creeping soundscape.