There is a horrifying intimacy to the Fantasia 2019 selection, Sator. On the surface, it can be taken as a family drama, although an extremely quiet one. But this is a family barely together. The unexplained death of their grandfather looms over them, a constant mystery left unresolved. Nani (June Peterson), the family grandmother, is slipping into dementia. She doesn’t always recognize the members of her family. The one thing she can talk about cogently is the presence of a being named Sator.
One of Nani’s grandsons, Adam (Gabe Nicholson), lives in a cabin in the California forest. He barely speaks. His dog is his only companion. Every once in a while, Adam’s brother, Pete (Michael Daniel), comes up to visit. Each night, Adam sets up his trail cameras and listens to cassette tapes of Nani talking about Sator. Adam has come to a chilling conclusion. Sator isn’t just a figment of Nani’s addled imagination. It is real and it is coming for him.
A great deal of this film is presented without dialogue. As previously stated, Adam hardly talks. The meat of the story is related through flashbacks and audio tapes left behind by Adam’s mother. Sator is a movie the viewer must pay attention to. Listen closely, or you might miss something. It all ties together in the final few moments of the film, which are both shocking and frightening.
It’s disconcerting to have a disembodied voice telling us about Sator in the background. We are learning secrets, things that people outside of the family ought not to be privy to. The utter belief in Sator by both Nani and Adam’s mother becomes pervasive. The emotionless rambling about suffering and purification almost become a subliminal aspect of the story.
Knowing a bit of back story for the film is helpful. The creator of this film, Jordan Graham, based Sator on the actual stories his grandmother would tell him. She believed, without a doubt, that Sator was real. It’s a weird world; who’s to say she was wrong? Graham says that his grandmother didn’t remember her participation in the film. She passed away in 2017. This information means that Sator plays out like a fictionalized home movie. That line between reality and fantasy is difficult to discern.
It took Graham five years to complete Sator. He did practically everything behind the scenes, including writing, directing, editing, composing the music, and, as the credits say, cabin construction. That’s hands-on creative control. This is Graham’s film, through and through. It’s his family story and, at this point, only he knows how much of it has been altered for the screen.
Sator is gorgeously photographed. The exterior scenes look like exquisite landscapes that should be framed. When the horror becomes visceral, especially in the third act, there is not a moment of flinching. While the term, ‘arthouse horror,’ may be overused, one can say that Sator is artful. Not a shot is wasted.
While Sator benefits from a second viewing to help unlock most, if not all, of its mysteries, it does enough to keep fans of slow-burn horror interested. Jump scares are happily kept to a minimum. The film comes across as elemental horror, finding dread in the symbolism of fire, water, air, and earth. Sator‘s power relies on natural noises, such as creaking doors and strong winds, and watching Adam slowly fall apart. The only element he cannot control is the idea of Sator, burrowing into his reality.
It’s an odd hybrid of a film, deeply personal, intensely discomfiting. The feeling that the power behind the concept of Sator, if not the execution, is real, gives the film a sharp edge. Sator doesn’t leap out at you and scream. Instead, it sits in the back of your mind and whispers terrible, awful things. Sator is a movie to be interpreted and deciphered, but not easily forgotten.
The Fantasia International Film Festival runs through August 1, 2019, Learn more about Fantasia 2019 at their official website.