From the Archives: Sator review

From the Archives: Sator review

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.

Originally posted on MovieJawn.

Almost immediately, Sator gives off some seriously creepy vibes. Set in a minuscule cabin in the foggy, damp woods, the tone is firmly established at the outset, and it will remain that way for the entirety of the film. Of the three settings (a cabin, another cabin, and the woods outside of each cabin), there is very little by way of visual variety. This is not a bad thing, as it is indicative of the oppressive nature of isolation—a condition that rarely fails to manifest horrors of all types.

In the main cabin, we find a hunter named Adam. He’s quiet and brooding, but it’s clear he knows his way around the woods. We see him blowing into an animal call of sorts, unleashing a wicked cry of pain and frustration. We do not see what he is calling, but it cannot be good. As indicated by the call, it barely even sounds human. Occasionally his brother Pete rolls through to dip into his stash of moonshine, and the two frequently find themselves sitting together in the woods, preparing for an ambiguous hunt. Cigarettes are smoked, beers are consumed, there’s a dog. You can picture it. You can almost taste the fog in the air as it intermingles with the damp odor of forest.

Occasionally, the film will switch aspect ratios and adopt a black and white lens, and this is usually whenever the moonshine-loving brother visits his grandmother, Nani, a woman in a state of severe mental decline. These shifts in perspective/color scheme happen without notice, and although I haven’t quite placed my finger on the specifics behind the choice, it’s always effective. Even when nothing is really happening on screen, it’s ALWAYS scary. There’s some trauma in this family’s past that all members seem to share, and although it’s never explicitly stated what it is that happened, there is a suggestion that the family has some sort of connection to an entity called Sator. You see, as a mental/emotional exercise, Nani will often engage in “automatic writing,” an activity wherein one empties their brain of thoughts and lets their subconscious do the writing. These sessions frequently result in “communication” from Sator, whatever the titular presence may be.

Here’s the rub: Nani is a real person. Her name is June Peterson and she’s the grandmother of writer/director Jordan Graham. Peterson has spent time in a psychiatric facility in the past, with her malady being that she heard voices. This is also true for relatives a generation back as well. A few of the family matriarchs have had similar experiences to Nani, and all of this, including some actual “automatic writings” from Peterson, have made their way into the film. Yes, this means that “Sator” is not a fictional creation of a filmmaker, but an entity with whom Peterson truly believed to be communicating, at least for a time.

Tying this personal family trauma into the story gives an incredible life to a movie that, given its slow pace, could easily fall into snooze territory. Thankfully, this is never the case. As brooding as the story can be, it’s never boring for a second. And as the mysteries of what’s “really” happening start to shift in and out of focus, a sort of dream logic takes precedent over any reality, and as most of us can attest, the more personal the nightmare, the scarier it is.

So can a nightmare that is clearly quite personal to the filmmaker translate to fear within the viewer? Evidently, it can. Once it becomes clear that this folksy spooker is less about plot than it is about shaking the viewer from their comfort zone, the chills pretty much never stop. Post-The Village ghoul design, paired the stark, barren environs of The Witch make for a lot of recognizable images, but none are applied the way a horror fan is typically conditioned to receive them, giving these images the power to simultaneously comfort and surprise the viewer, much like the darkness outside of a solitary cabin does for a fertile imagination. And when Graham sees fit to lift the veil of mystery in short bursts of more direct (and in one case, intensely violent) servings of horror, Sator unsettles with the best of them.

During the closing credits, you will see an almost comical burst of text where it is revealed that Jordan Graham did, well, just about everything on this production. But when you’re done marveling at his talent and drive, stick around for some more interactions between Nani and Sator, mined from Graham’s real life once again.

A viewer can choose to take in Sator devoid of its personal connection to the filmmaker and it would still be just as effective, but digging into the story behind the film has proved to be quite rewarding, and it has me wanting to revisit it with this understanding in order to better grasp other spooky thematic elements that can surely be mined from it. Here in 2021, it’s nice to see an artist reckoning with his demons, for lack of better term, rather than just reacting to them. Such inclinations will always make for better art. Whether you enjoy Sator or not, and you may not, given its deliberate pacing and ambiguous plot, there’s no denying that it’s precisely the film that the filmmakers wanted to make, and we should celebrate such things. Especially when they’re this scary!

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