Slow-burn horror is a genre that is gaining traction following the success of films such as The Witch, Hereditary, and The Wailing – and it happens to be one of my favorite genres of horror. It’s easy to come up with jump scares, or a killer right off the bat, but keeping an audience hooked with atmospheres and building tension is much easier said than done. Sator (stylized SATOR) is an existential, slow-burn horror film that blends fiction and truth. Jordan Graham wrote and directed Sator, as well as included a sizable portion of his real-life and family into this horror film.
Sator tells the fictional story of Adam (Gabe Nicholson), who at first glance seems like an ordinary, withdrawn man living off the grid. He ventures out for food and supplies, pets his dog, and keeps a very close eye on deer cameras posted outside his house. But we quickly find out Adam is not alone – he has family nearby, who he tends to keep at arms’ distance. This family includes his grandmother, Noni (June Peterson).
The film actually opens on Noni, speaking about her experiences with a figure named Sator, who “was in charge of everything” and evidently communicates through her through what the family calls “automatic writing.” Noni’s experiences with Sator seem to have been benevolent throughout her life, but her family members’ experiences have evidently been much darker. Adam’s life in the woods quickly spirals into darkness as he realizes the day he’s always feared has arrived – Sator has come for him.
Graham has a laundry list of roles he filled for this movie – director, writer, producer, editor, composer, cabin builder…The low budget and the small team is the reason the film took nearly six years to finish post-production. The cinematography is deeply atmospheric, with tones of cult horror films like The Lighthouse and Hereditary, which came out after Sator had finished filming. The effects and score are truly ahead of its time. Nicholson’s performance as Adam is understated as Adam keeps his quiet composure for as long as he can, even when his family around him become increasingly unhinged. Peterson as Noni, however, is the star of Sator.
The truth in this film stands primarily in Noni. Peterson is Graham’s actual late grandmother, and to her, Sator is very much real. The portions of the film that focus on Noni talking about Sator’s love and worship are more like interviews you’d find in a documentary than scenes you’d find in a horror film. In his director’s statement, Graham writes, “…despite intensive psychiatric intervention, my grandmother insisted that the entity, Sator, was no figment of her imagination or the result of mental illness, but very real. Also very real in this film…is my grandmother relating her unique and hauntingly personal experiences of these encounters…” Peterson’s performance is not a performance at all.
Seeing Adam attempt to handle his mother’s and his grandmother’s struggles and their long-lasting effects in Sator Sator will hit hard for anyone who has a history of mental illness in their family. Knowing Peterson isn’t acting makes Sator authentic, but that also makes it tough to watch. As the film escalates from seemingly innocuous encounters with Sator to something much more dark and harmful, Adam and Noni spiral as well. It’s all too familiar to anyone (like me) who’s seen a family member lose parts of themselves to something you can’t see.
This alone makes Sator special. It’s personal in a way that very few horror films have dared to be, but that personal take comes at a price. The storytelling is vague, because only Noni truly knows Sator, and she’s shown during a decline in age and mental health. Because of this, we don’t get the feeling Graham is intentionally holding back information, but the puzzle of the film is never complete. The authentic nature and the intentional ambiguity of Sator leaves the viewer with the feeling they’ve witnessed something they shouldn’t have. In my opinion, that’s the best sign of any slow-burn horror film. It stays in your brain like a good mystery and leaves you a little worried to turn the lights off before bed.
Sator is out on VoD on February 9, 2021.
The authentic nature and the intentional ambiguity of Sator leaves the viewer with the feeling they’ve witnessed something they shouldn’t have. In my opinion, that’s the best sign of any slow-burn horror film. It stays in your brain like a good mystery and leaves you a little worried to turn the lights off before bed.