The Spool / Fantasia 2019
Fantasia 2019: “Sator” Offers Big Chills on No Budget
Jordan Graham's minimalist supernatural horror will get under your skin in ways you won't see coming.
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Jordan Graham’s minimalist supernatural horror will get under your skin in ways you won’t see coming.

Sator is a mood. Not much happens up until the shocking, nightmarish ending, but boy, does it land that perfect tone of utter desolation. Though it’s shot in both black and white and color, the color scenes are washed out to drab shades of grayish-blue and brown. Just watching it makes you feel cold, lonely, and a little nervous.

Five years in the making, Sator is the second feature from Jordan Graham, after 2012’s Specter. Graham wrote, directed, edited, shot, composed the soundtrack, and did everything else short of catering on the set, even hand-writing the end credits. Unlike his fellow DIY filmmaker Neil Breen, however, Graham demonstrates real competence in his work, and a dedication to creating a story with a linear plot (even if things do get a little weird at the end) and characters who don’t talk like they’ve just fallen out of a spaceship.

Supposedly based on a real experience in Graham’s family (though once it’s over you’ll find yourself wondering with unease exactly what part really happened), Sator stars Gabriel Nicholson as Adam, a young man who lives alone far out in the woods, tracking…something with the use of deer cameras. Adam barely speaks, even when his brother (Michael Daniel), who sounds comically a bit like Boomhauer in King of the Hill, visits, and regards everything with an exhausted, shell-shocked wariness.

It’s like a very creepy Magic Eye puzzle, except the longer you look, the more not right the picture gets.

When he’s not stalking around outside in the cold, Adam is either reviewing recorded footage from the deer cameras, or listening to recordings of a woman’s voice speaking about someone (or something) named Sator, a being who offers redemption in punishment. We eventually learn that the woman is Adam’s mother, who has disappeared. Though initially it’s assumed that Adam has gone to live out in the country to look for her, we soon learn that that isn’t exactly the case, as the story slowly, methodically unfolds.

“Nothing is as it seems” is a hard trope to do without plot holes and some amount of suspension of disbelief, but Graham plays it off well. It’s like a very creepy Magic Eye puzzle, except the longer you look, the more not right the picture gets.

Intercut with the present storyline are scenes meant to evoke home movies, mostly of Adam’s grandmother, Nani (June Peterson), who appears to be suffering from dementia. She too speaks of Sator as a “guardian,” who communicates with her and guides her hand in spirit writing. “Sator was training me to be a person,” she says, and though it sounds like the words of a person well into losing her grasp on reality, it eventually becomes clear that Sator has an insidious grip on the entire family.

If The Blair Witch Project isn’t your thing, then Sator probably isn’t going to land with you either. Both rely on atmosphere and suggestion more than visuals, and both take a minimalist approach to horror until they punch you in the gut with an unexpectedly horrifying, unforgettable ending. The image of Nani laughing in warm recognition near the very end will stick with you, as will the recorded voice Adam listens to saying what might be the most bone-chilling line of film dialogue in 2019: “And after you have suffered a little while, he will make you pure.”

The end credits roll over footage of who is presumably Graham’s real-life grandmother, the inspiration for Noni. Knowing that the strange things she talks about as her mind slips away are likely what inspired Sator somehow doesn’t diminish its impact. In fact, quite the opposite, it becomes that much more chilling. Sometimes our loved ones really are slowly pulled away from us by unknown forces, and we’re all made to suffer for it.