Hail ‘Sator’, a cabin-in-the-woods horror flick made from one filmmaker’s blood, sweat, and tears

As far as exorcism rituals go, filmmaking is perhaps the most elaborate of them all.

Sator is built almost entirely from scratch by director Jordan Graham, the result of five years of isolated toil ― an arduous process which became a means of excavating his family’s demons.

While the contributions of directors to their works are often exaggerated at the erasure of their collaborators, this is undeniably a singular piece of filmmaking with Graham adopting all the key creative roles ― and even some of the minor ones. It’s the kind of undertaking certain to enact a mental toll; in this case, Graham also suffers from permanent physical pain, resulting from the process of individually building a cabin for the film’s main set (located on a mountain, no less).

Sator begins with one of the most nerve-shredding preludes I’ve witnessed in recent memory, with the camera patiently tracking into a cabin in the woods that’s hiding something awful. The entire sequence is undergirded by truly unholy sound design and presented in monochrome academy ratio (thus bearing an unfortunate, if superficial resemblance to The Lighthouse [2019]). It then cuts to an empty forest, the film now in colour and stretched out to a widescreen aspect ratio. We’re introduced to our lead character, Adam (Gabe Nicholson), as he methodically peruses the uninviting landscape. Naturally, he’s unaware that something is clearly tracking him.

After establishing that Pete lives a sequestered existence deep in the forest, the film drip-feeds exposition, cryptically withholding the why or how of his circumstances at first. The answers are not always satisfying, but they all tie back to Pete’s grandmother, Nani (June Peterson, who also happens to be Graham’s real grandmother). A sinister, messianic voice by the name of Sator has been proselytising into her ear for years ― but of course, no one believes it exists. She translates their commands into words and images via ‘automatic writing’: Trust him completely. After you have suffered a little while he will find you. He will make you pure…

What isn’t apparent at all is the film’s blend of fiction and documentary. Graham employs mostly unscripted footage of his grandma, who in real life believed she could communicate with  her own Sator, a guardian angel of sorts. While her appearance was originally intended to be a cameo, the director realised the voices in June’s head were a compelling new focus for his film, and shot extra footage of her recounting her communication with Sator to the film’s actors. Sator wasn’t even part of the movie until post-production.

Much of the film follows Adam as he pays regular visits to Nani with his siblings Pete (Michael Daniel) and Evie (Rachel Johnson), providing them an opportunity to check up on her while briefly commiserating over their family’s mysterious, tragic past. The history of mental illness which pervades Nani’s family is the same one which haunts Pete, making this a deeply personal story ― yet the film only hints at the emotional damage wrought by the hereditary condition, and the manifestations of Nani’s condition are never quite logical, muddying the potentially powerful subtext. (I would strongly recommend reading further into Jordan Graham’s connection to the film and the hardships involved in its creation.)

It’s impressive to note how the film’s technical prowess rarely reflects the circumstances of its production, providing the illusion that the entire affair was executed by a skilled crew. However, Graham’s horror sensibilities vary in effectiveness. The visual design of the film is often striking, its images carefully composed to evoke the terrifying potential of negative space in vast forests and even cramped cabins. Production design is genuinely inspired at times, particularly its vision of the fabled Sator himself. Yet its mostly subtle horror is impeded by lapses in pacing (in which character work fails to pick up the slack), an abundance of jump scares fuelled solely by deafening sound effects, and goofy flashes of violence.

Once again, it’s difficult to deny that Sator is anything but a singular vision ― but it’s one which somewhat ironically struggles to distinguish itself in an increasingly crowded landscape. Throughout the film’s development, slow-burn arthouse horror has grown ever more prominent, with the films of Oz Perkins, Robert Eggers, and Ari Aster at the genre’s forefront. The austere restraint, haunted woods, dream sequences, cult imagery, and blurring between reality and psychosis can’t help but feel somewhat stale, as carefully executed as they are. You’ll undoubtedly watch parts of the film through your fingers ― but squint a little closer and you might swear that you’ve seen it all before. 

Sator will be playing on 21 February and 1 March at the Lido Hawthorn and 23 February at Ritz Cinema as part of Fantastic Film Festival Australia.

Visit the Fantastic Film Festival site for more info.

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Jamie Tram is a writer, filmmaker, and screwball obsessive from Melbourne, Australia. His writing lurks at Senses of Cinema, Kill Your Darlings, and other places. You can direct all your complaints to @tram_i_am.

Jamie Tram