Both Cannibal Holocaust and The Blair Witch Project claimed to be “found” footage, which led to a murder trial for the former and box office success for the latter. Auteur Jordan Graham’s first feature, Sator, is a variation on that theme. In his director’s statement, Graham says, “Also very real in this film, despite its fictional premise, is my grandmother relating her unique and hauntingly personal experiences.” Meaning Sator mixes Graham’s family videos into a supernatural horror film.
Not knowing where the fiction starts and where the fact ends make for a fascinating viewing experience. As a recording of his Grandma says, “If you summon Sator, he will turn his attention toward you… he will make you pure” over the radio, viewers will wonder if it’s a real or scripted recording. Graham’s Nani (June Peterson) plays herself, and it’s never clear when she’s acting, if ever, and when she’s being filmed out of character. It’s not clear if there is a character at all. That ambiguity had will have viewers rapt, trying to spot the seams between reality and fiction.
The fiction in question is more familiar than the use of real footage. Adam (Gabriel Nicholson) is living in a secluded cabin in the woods, making occasional visits to his Nani. She introduces Sator, a mysterious creature that may live in those same woods. Adam is searching for something, which is implied to be Sator. He checks his trail cams nightly, but something is breaking the memory cards. Slowly—Sator is light on dialogue and heavy on atmosphere—viewers are clued in that Adam and Nani may be suffering from hallucinations. Then again, Sator may be a real force in the world, sending telepathic signals to Nani as she practices automatic writing.
The angle of a hallucination that might be real has been done to death, but it feels fresh in Sator. It works because Graham includes scenes where characters actually seek out psychiatric help. Adam’s brother, Pete (Michael Daniel) even goes for in-patient care at one point. When he gets back, his family treats him with compassion, rather than arm’s-length skepticism, which is the default reaction in bad horror movies. It seems like a small detail, but these little tidbits are what makes it feel like Graham has actual experience with mental illness. That helps build viewer’s trust in Graham as a storyteller and the world he’s built, making the scary scenes scarier and the connective tissue between them fascinating.
To go along with some of his grandmother’s real ramblings, Graham draws naturalistic performances from the rest of his cast. Their performances feel unpolished, which is perfect for Sator’s blend of real and staged footage. The aspect ratio shifts throughout the film, and at times it can be grainy, but again, Sator’s rough edges sell the idea that Graham is showing us something real. Whether the footage is fact or fiction, Graham still needed to convince his viewers because he can say parts are real in his director’s statement, but it wouldn’t be the first time a film portrayed fiction as fact in order to better scare audiences.
Sator would likely scare viewers with or without real footage mixed in. Graham does good work establishing atmosphere with an unintelligible-whisper heavy soundtrack, long shots of the woods at night, and a near silent protagonist for the first half of the film. Later on, he punctuates that creeping quiet with moments of extreme violence.
In addition to all of that, Graham’s cinematography is gorgeous. It likely helped that Sator was shot on location in Santa Cruz and Yosemite, CA. It would’ve been difficult to turn the camera in any direction without lensing something gorgeous, but Graham’s talent excels beyond that. His gorgeous composition stands out, often feeling like Romantic-era landscape paintings.
It took Graham seven years to complete his work on Sator. He directed, wrote, produced, composed, photographed, and edited the film. Rarely do films with one person doing so much succeed, however Graham’s work on Sator, clearly a labor of love, pays off. (Anna Biller of Love Witch fame is another exception.) Hopefully, it won’t take six years for him to make his follow-up. And if it does, that’s the price of making such a strange, scary film while doing the work of an entire film crew almost entirely by himself. Sator will available on Digital Download from 15th February & DVD from 22nd February and can be pre-ordered on iTunes here.
Wicked Rating – 7/10
Director: Jordan Graham
Writer: Jordan Graham
Stars: Gabriel Nicholson, June Peterson, Michael Daniel
Studio/Production Company: Mistik Jade Films
Release Date: February 9, 2021 (Digital and On-Demand)
Length: 85 minutes