★★★ out of ★★★★★
Sator is a still Life, with horror and dread. It is an artistic triumph but also a difficult movie to get into. The film is elegant, quiet, and cold to the point of aloofness, but there is some very potent material if you are patient.
Directed by Jordan Graham
Sator is a micro-budget horror movie with a very high level of craftsmanship. It debuted at the prestigious Fantasia Festival in Montreal, and with that comes some fine credentials, as this is one of the premier genre festivals in the world. Each frame of Sator is composed… just so. The set design all seems very purposeful. The soundscapes created are set on hair-pin triggers. Little nuances like watching spiders, mosquitos, and the blowing of tree limbs are lovingly captured. And there is a backbone of a demonic possession that runs its way through the feature. The narrative, however, is a bit of a chore, as you have to piece together the plot through some very affected dialogue.
This movie is lonely, almost meditative. It contains very little dialogue. When they do talk it is more in monologue than dialogue, and the characters quietly grumble to each other in muted tones or ramble on with cryptic pronouncements in a flat monotone. What this manages to do is allow some of the more dramatic moments in the movie to pierce through the background ramblings. But that also means that there are runs of the movie that just feel a bit muddy, and it’s a bit of a struggle to piece together the motivations of the characters.
Gabe Nicholson plays Adam, a hunter, living alone in a cabin with his hunting dog in a cabin deep in the woods. He spends his days in the woods using a very ominous sounding deer whistle and checking his deer cameras. In the evening he settles in to listen to old audio cassette recordings of his grandmother, Nani (June Peterson), prattling on and pontificating about mysterious spirits and what they tell her. Sator is a being who has gotten into her brain and teaching her and training her how to be a person. Uh oh!
Adam’s brother Pete (Michael Daniel) comes by to visit, drink moonshine, and mumble complaints about their family. Their sister Deborah helps take care of the mad grandmother at the old homestead. It is curious that the three grandchildren do not appear to be particularly alarmed. Given that their grandfather died mysteriously and their mother disappeared, it seems they should be taking their grandmother’s rants more seriously.
In addition to recording these ramblings, she would also scrawl these mad messages onto paper, and Nani would describe this as automatic writing. She has taken the voices in her head quite nonchalantly.
Sator’s phrases are foreboding, as Nani channels messages like:
“This is Sator, your path to purification will be tried by fire, only then will I make you in my image. But first I will send a messenger to your temples.”
“Are you ready to have dominion over everything that creeps, ready to be cleansed and purified, to join Sator as one of his disciples? I am now waiting for your burnt offerings. I delight in burnt offerings.”
If I were living in a cabin in the woods, these are exactly the LAST recordings I would want to be listening to. But, Adam is clearly struggling with some inner conflicts, and his isolation seems to be messing with his psyche, allowing to stew in these dire pronouncements from the voice of his grandmother. Not surprisingly, Adam starts hearing ominous whispers in incomprehensible tongues. Sator is beginning to speak to him, just like it did for his Nani, and, we learn so did his mother. And soon Sator’s messenger pays him a visit.
When visiting his grandmother’s home (and interestingly not bothering to visit his Nani) Adam meets a woman, Evie (Rachel Johnson), hanging out near the homestead who takes an interest in him, and seems to know more secrets about him than she should. There is something dark and ominous about her, and there is that funny vocal inflection to her at a couple of moments that suggest that there is more to her than she is letting on.
Eventually, Sator makes his move, and send out his emissary to pay Adam a visit, as has been foretold in Nani’s crazy rants. Clearly, Sator has plans for the whole family, and that the curse flows downhill. There is a bit of Hereditary built into this movie, but the film lacks the narrative punch of last year’s breakout hit. The movie also is a VERY slow burn, but in the third act, when you suspect that the movie is all dread build up without any denouement, the violence comes like a sucker punch to the solar plexus.
But the effect of the punishing closing act is tempered in that you really don’t have an investment in the protagonists. They are as a group a bunch of cold and distant individuals, and you never really get to know much about them in the hour and half run time. You understand that the family has been through a lot of turmoil revolving around Sator, but you don’t know much about them personally. And honestly, there might have been some inter-personal discussions, but it never cut through the mumbling and grumbling. It becomes very difficult to attach yourself to these depressed and muted protagonists, lost in their melancholy and madness. Hell, you don’t really even miss the dog that much when he goes missing, and for that matter, the dog doesn’t even have a name.
Graham shifts the pictures from color to black and white and back. The aspect ratio changes at the same time for flashback scenes, though it takes you a while to realize the timeframe. Graham frames the movie with stark contrasts in light and dark, quiet and loud, and acting that runs very monotonous… in that, the dialogue is very measured and flat, really de-emphasizing the emotions of the characters. The use of the contrast of light and sound does pay off handily when Graham wants to pull off a jump scare moment, and there are a couple of WHOA! doozies in the film.
I have to think this is highly intentional. It creates a cold cinemascape and it has a purpose about it, but it is all head, no heart. Graham has talent, but he needs to inject more life into his characters so that they are as vibrant as his art direction.
Sator is not rated but would certainly earn an R for the closing act of the movie, for some pointedly nasty violence at the end. This movie, having just debuted at Fantasia Festival 2019, does not yet have a wide release date or a streaming date.