By Elias Savada.
Graham plays you with creaking floorboards, flashlights shining in dusty interiors, and just plain gloom.”
Fans of last year’s Tenet know that its title connects to the Sator Square, the ancient stone with early Christian contexts. Filmmaker Jordan Graham takes a different (and much lower budget) approach to the word in his new film Sator, but still has some highbrow concepts of his own that might bend your mind in similar fashion.
Graham’s barebones horror oeuvre, in post-production for over a half-dozen years, is finally seeing the light of day after premiering at Fantasia Fest 18 months ago and having been offered at numerous festivals since. It now arrives on PVOD (Apple+ and Amazon’s Prime Video). Seemingly a singular affair (i.e., Orson Welles, move over), as Graham claims heir to his progeny as producer, director, writer, cinematographer, editor, and others, for a total of 18 non-acting aspects of the feature (including cabin construction). One man shopping, but without it being obvious.
Despite (or probably because of) his obsessive stamp on his films, Graham has gathered a nice group of friends to help with his sophomore feature after 2012’s Specter, likewise starring some of the same actors (Gabriel Nicholson, Rachel Johnson, Michael Daniel, Michael Frye).
Crickets are chirping, candles are ablaze, and someone is a-whisperin’ as Sator begins to reveal its ambiguous mysteries in dark, black-and-white, minimalist tones. The camera floats inside a somber home to reveal an old woman in a seemingly catatonic state. My first question: Who lit all these candles if she’s in such a state, and what is Jordan Graham doing?
Honestly, just sit back and absorb it. Sator is a laidback affair, a slow burn of a horror film, playing with our heads as unworldly images are accompanied by the dissonant noises on the soundtrack, before fading to widescreen color, which happens once the characters are out of that cabin.
A family lives out there in the backwoods. First you meet drab Adam (Nicholson), when a mosquito alights on his nose. (Oddly, Graham does not take credit as pest wrangler.) A lonely woodsman, who might be gaunt survivalist or someone looking for a Yeti for all we know, likes to check his trail camera for images of deer, but it seems to have a bad memory card. No images. There seems to be some inherent issues with this family as they arrive at various points the film, whether in present time or grainy flashbacks. Adam’s brother, Pete (Daniel), their dad and mom (Wendy Taylor), the latter an apparent nutcase, having recorded audiocassettes with supernatural ramblings that Adam listens to. When they head back to that b&w cabin (grandma’s place – that’s June “Nani” Peterson, Graham’s real grandmother, as “herself”) to get a working replacement for the deer cam, there are a few unwelcome guests trolling about on behalf of the titular character. These disciples are mostly late arrivals in this 85-minute film, but things begin to go bump in the night before the more menacing characters enter the picture, especially as grandma’s rantings about Sator are seemingly her own beliefs. “Trust in him completely.” Uh-oh.
When Sator does come forth, the skeletal being looks likes one of the idiots who ransacked the Capitol building at the beginning of the year. You know, the guy with the horned hat. Just replace his face with an animal skull mask.
All creepiness aside – well, truly you can’t put it aside – the film has a nice interplay of darkness, a whimpering dog, and some juicy jump cuts (and jump sounds, because some the lighting is so dark you can barely see) to knock you off your couch. Sprinkle in some mumblings, weirdness, and, wait, is that a UFO, or a dream? There’s plenty of peculiar happenings in this supernatural puzzle that needs some thought to unravel. Some of those flashbacks are going to throw your train of thought off course.
Graham plays you with creaking floorboards, flashlights shining in dusty interiors, and just plain gloom. It’s amazing how scary you can make a film by just not showing everything, and then landing on a strange young woman tied to a tree. Cries in the distance, shrieks up close.
The climax, as it is, is more of the weird wintry landscape that is Sator, although there is some blood and gore that I wasn’t expecting. It might not be fully satisfying, but there’s still plenty for the horror buff to enjoy.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).