2021, NR, 85 min. Directed by Jordan Graham. Starring Michael Daniel, June Peterson, Rachel Johnson, Aurora Lowe, Gabriel Nicholson, Wendy Taylor.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., April 23, 2021

What's the difference between a religion, a cult, and pure, delusional madness? The number of believers. That simple equation twists around the heart of Sator, the shocking and nerve-twisting occult horror from one-man production house Jordan Graham.

Sator sprung from personal family trauma, its malevolent woodland titular specter being the name that his grandmother (Peterson, playing a version of herself here) gave to a strange spirit that had spoken to her for decades. Within the film, Graham's avatar is Pete (Daniel), a gaunt and taciturn hunter in the wintery forests of California. He knows when a predator is lurking, which is why he becomes convinced that Nani's ramblings about this unseen entity are more than just the tendrils of dementia taking deeper root in her fading mind.

Graham did not so much make Sator as assemble it over six years, eschewing conventional narrative arcs in favor of a unifying tone of all-encompassing dread. Throughout, Daniel captures an unspoken emptiness in Pete, and Graham's greatest achievement is to keep the film captivating while the seeds of Pete's motivations finally come to fruition. That sense of a constructed world would make Sator feel artificial or pretentious if it wasn't for the extraordinary attention to detail in every frame and note. He overcomes the clearly limited budget by that consistency of vision, and by filling the claustrophobic world out to the edges of the forest in which Pete searches for Sator, whatever it may be.

That construction builds an utterly unique tone and pace, layered with foreboding and implication. Home movies merge seamlessly with trap cam footage and elegantly framed darknesses, often illuminated from a single point source. (Graham's decision to use actual footage of his grandmother, and so much of his own family mythology, might have felt intrusive if it wasn't for the way this feels so personal, and drenched in fever-sweat catharsis.) Equally chilling is the sound design, purged of ambient sound and replaced with noises that feel both organic and alienating.

Watching Sator is like having your eyes adjust to the dark (and there’s plenty of that), getting used to exactly how Graham is telling his story, almost detached from the concept of linear time. Then, like the hunter at the bitter heart of his tale, Graham shuts the trap behind you for one of the most brutal denouements of recent years – so shocking that it might seem a break from what had gone before if it wasn’t for that all-important miasma of malice and dread that sweeps over everything. What has gone before leads to where it goes, putting Sator alongside the recent wave of darkly captivating supernatural family dramas like Hereditary, cult favorite The Deeper You Dig, and Bryan Bertino’s stunning and sadly overlooked The Dark and the Wicked. It's a film that you absorb, until it slithers around and engulfs you.

Available on VOD now, and streaming on Shudder from May 10.

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Sator, Jordan Graham, Michael Daniel, June Peterson, Rachel Johnson, Aurora Lowe, Gabriel Nicholson, Wendy Taylor

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