SATOR (2019)


Studio:      1091 Pictures
Director:    Jordan Graham
Writer:      Jordan Graham
Producer:  Jordan Graham
Stars:     Gabe Nicholson, Michael Daniel, Rachel Johnson, Aurora Lowe, June Peterson, James W. Peterson, Wendy Taylor

Review Score:



Starting with a grandmother suffering from dementia, a supernatural spirit gradually consumes the minds of a fractured family.



Understanding the backstory behind its making is essential to understanding the movie ¡°Sator¡± is, or more accurately, the movie ¡°Sator¡± became.

Filmmaker Jordan Graham initially set out to make a traditional ¡°cabin in the woods¡± horror film. It was always a piecemeal project, put together with freebies and favors on whatever spare weekends friends and family were available to pitch in. With DIY all over its DNA, Graham built his movie as a one-man band where he played the instruments of director, writer, producer, cinematographer, editor, and about a dozen more credits elbowing for space on an overcrowded end title card.

At some point during production, which lasted seven years, Graham convinced his grandmother June Peterson to make a quick cameo while shooting in her house. Afflicted with dementia, Peterson unexpectedly spurted a personal story about Sator, a supernatural spirit who had been haunting her head since 1968. As you might imagine, this brain-breaking revelation led her grandson down a rabbit hole of true family history that involved Ouija boards, psychiatric hospitals, and a tragic lineage of mental illness.

Drenched in oil he¡¯d inadvertently struck, Graham reconfigured his film. He smartly continued getting his small cast to improvise with his grandmother. Whatever she said about Sator, Graham worked her words into the movie, often having to take as much as a week off from filming each time to figure out how to reshape the story or re-cut the edit. Sator himself didn¡¯t even appear onscreen until post-production, when Peterson¡¯s health decline turned the final phase of filming into a race against time.

With a needle of necessity and thread woven from serendipity, ¡°Sator¡± sews a patchwork quilt that¡¯s very much an experimental exercise. Peculiar cutaways and ADR noises bring to mind a bit of Luis Bunuel. Aspect ratios fluctuate. Those changes usually come with color turning to black and white. Authentic home movies are incorporated into fictional footage that mixes mediums of film and digital. Some of these stylings are conscious creative choices. Some of them are simply the result of equipment availability evolving over the course of a long production cycle.

Although the narrative stays so scattered that I can¡¯t get much out of the movie as entertainment, I thoroughly respect what Jordan Graham attempts regardless of how much he conclusively accomplishes. I suppose a cynic could cry ¡°exploitation!¡± in regards to incorporating a woman without all of her faculties, who apparently assumed in her haze that the performer she was playing against really was her grandson. Benefit of the doubt counters that it¡¯s courageous to risk exposing personal family matters to make diminished mental capacity a prominent theme. Dealing with dementia stirs deep fears in many people, making it a subject ripe for exploration in horror. By combining the biographical element as well as using technical inconsistencies to visually echo the experiences of a fractured mind, Graham comes up with a creative way of conceiving a no-budget indie so it¡¯s designed to feel unlike anything else at that level.

Speaking of June Peterson specifically, she¡¯s utterly fantastic. Of course, that¡¯s because she¡¯s not actually ¡°acting.¡± Her warm way of speaking, which will assuredly remind many of how their own elderly loved ones interact, comes with organic honesty that makes her conviction about Sator sound convincing. In other scenes, such as the film¡¯s final footage of Peterson¡¯s thoughts on the entity, a dark desperation appears in her eyes that¡¯s positively chilling. It¡¯s probably projection on my part, but knowing her condition, there¡¯s a sense that a cognizant person is trapped in her body, anxious to reveal all of Sator¡¯s supernatural secrets, but painfully unable to comprehend it all through a broken brain. No professional could feign the genuineness Peterson provides, which is why she¡¯s crucial to the film¡¯s ability to be unsettlingly infectious.

Impatient people will have their attention spans stomped by ¡°Sator¡¯s¡± unhurried inching through arty imagery of unknown significance. The behind-the-scenes origins summarized above offer some explanation so someone might realize, ¡°Oh, that¡¯s why this film wanders through dreamy dread instead of playing like a supernatural slasher on Syfy.¡± Similarly, one might need the director sitting alongside each viewer to explain his intentions with the film¡¯s nonlinear fiction, which pinballs into incomprehensibility so often, not even the savviest cinema sleuth could possibly parse what everything means, if everything even means anything at all.

I roll my eyes at websites that repeatedly write ¡°Such-and-Such Explained¡± articles that are nothing but shameless clickbait, particularly when the headline is something stupidly obvious like ¡°The Sixth Sense Twist Explained,¡± as if anyone could be too dense to ¡°catch¡± that Bruce Willis was a ghost or whatever. But I wouldn¡¯t look cross-eyed at a critic who wanted to give that kind of treatment to ¡°Sator.¡± In fact, I¡¯d like to read it. I procrastinated as long as possible with writing my own synopsis because I didn¡¯t even want to attempt organizing tangible plot points into a sensible order. Determining which scenes are important and which can be safely scrapped is a unique challenge for creating ¡°Sator¡± Cliff¡¯s Notes. Ultimately, I shrugged my shoulders and only summarized as much as I could make sense of for certain.

It¡¯s entirely possible that writer/director Jordan Graham doesn¡¯t definitively know every detail about ¡°Sator¡¯s¡± story either. Who exactly is Evie and what is her relationship to the two brothers? What is this accident she vaguely refers to and who else was involved? Is dream logic behind jumbling up the timeline or is confusion only a byproduct of altering the story on the fly and working around actor availability over the better part of a decade?

The film doesn¡¯t want you to focus on its fiction as much as its mood anyway. ¡°Sator¡± isn¡¯t at all built for commercial consumption as a typical horror movie. It¡¯s an audiovisual essay meant to be Jordan Graham¡¯s calling card as a filmmaker fearlessly fascinated by unusual textures. That¡¯s what makes ¡°Sator¡± a standout, but also what makes it difficult to endorse to anyone expecting an easily digestible fright film. ¡°Sator¡¯s¡± smoke comes from the tinder of its atmospheric allure, not from the thin sticks of its highly fragile fantasy. Caveat emptor absolutely applies here.

Review Score: 50