It’s commonly understood that amidst the throngs of successful filmmakers, there are many who began their careers with little more than a handful of friends and a camera. The combination of pluck, gumption and youthful ambition can bring great results, and such established names as Peter Jackson, Sam Raimi and Kevin Smith can all trace their careers back to such humble roots. While those are the success stories, there are always those many who fall by the wayside. Indeed, plumbing the depths of Amazon Prime and Netflix is often like trawling the mass grave of failed filmmaking careers. It’s easy then to forget that many new voices are born from the struggle to complete something new, and Jordan Graham’s Sator is a bold and effective calling card from a talented first time feature director.
Taking place in the dense and desolate forests of Northern California, Sator tells the story of a rural family, who’s lives are beset by the ever-looming presence of the titular entity. Several members of the family have heard his voice in their heads, and Grandmother Nani (June Peterson) has boxes of papers of automatic writing, created under his influence. Meanwhile brothers, Adam (Gabriel Nicholson) and Pete (Michael David) are coping with life’s troubles by hiding in the family hunting lodge, and descending into alcoholism, respectively. But the longer Adam stays in the forest, the more sinister the world seems to become, as odd sounds, and night-time visions begin to manifest.
It’s a strange, slow burn of a film, filled with a sickly creeping dread, and ever-present sense of malice overshadowing events. Graham has taken full advantage of the eerie beauty of the forests and mountains to create an oppressive quality that makes the small cabin where Pete dwells for much of the runtime feel more like a sanctuary surrounded by horrors than a warm bolthole for a weekend’s tracking. What’s more, the shifts between the grainy 4:3 footage of the family home, and the rich full screen colour of the wood scenes only emphasises the contrary schism between the natural world and the house.
For a film that features a combined cast and crew of a mere eleven people, this is plainly a labour of love. A labour of seven years to be exact, as Graham wrote, directed, and even built the cabin featured in the film by hand for the production, and has been painstakingly scoring and editing the film since then. Even more bizarrely, Graham reportedly altered the entire direction of the story as a direct result of improvised scenes with his real-life grandmother, Peterson, who spun them the tale of Sator, and really did create the pages of automatic writing.
The final result is a film that feels born from the same earth as Robert Eggers‘ The Witch, and The Blair Witch Project. While the film is entrancingly creepy, and genuinely unsettling at points, the limits of its micro-production nature do show at times. Most notably there is a confusing story-jump at the start of the third act, which suddenly thrusts the little seen character of Deborah (Aurora Lowe) into the spotlight, and some of the storyline is oddly thin at times. That said, none of this takes away from the very real horror of the piece, and the moments of genuine ingenuity and craftsmanship on display here. It’s plain to see that Jordan Graham is a talent to keep an eye on.
Available on Digital Download now & DVD from Mon 22 Feb 2021