There’s a certain allure to the idea of the auteur—cinema royalty is apparently full of them. Jordan Graham, who made his debut feature almost single-handedly over five years, seems to embody the term. Unfortunately, Sator is a film which highlights the merits of collaboration, proving impenetrable in its adherence to the director’s vision.
The story follows the plight of Adam (Gabriel Nicholson), a brooding, near-silent protagonist watching out for the supernatural entity responsible for the mysterious tragedy striking his family. The opening oozes ethereal confidence. A creepy, monochromatic crawl through an old house, lit only by candlelight. An old woman stares, motionless, at an empty doorway. A figure in a white dress floats above a bonfire. When the shot expands into the misty green-grey of a desolate forest, the sense of unease lingers in the many silences pervading the rest of the film. It’s a tone masterfully set, and one which mostly persists throughout.
The sense of mystery never feels effectively resolved, however. Instead, the narrative fixes upon isolated images and events which never quite coalesce into a conventional plot. It’s more Lost Highway than The Witch, though it loses the spectacle and originality of the former in its attempt to emulate the latter. The resulting confusion proves frustrating, all the more so because of the genuinely interesting ideas bubbling underneath. Themes and entire potential plotlines are routinely underdeveloped, each lacking the depth of interpretation seen in the works inspiring them. Meanwhile, the uneasiness of the film’s early scenes fades slightly thanks to a sound mix which seems intent on making every incidental noise as loud as possible, which quickly loses its novelty and its impact.
The spooks, too, sadly fall flat. Though it successfully manufactures a sense of general unease, the moments where this would be expected to spill into terror never quite land. The ambiguity shrouding the film lingers, with big reveal moments ruined by busy shot composition and a murky colour palette. Is that a sinister figure hiding in that photograph? Or is it just a tree? Even the cast don’t seem too worried by the Wendigo-esque cultists popping out of the woods, their muted responses tonally consistent but robbing the film of tension. Perhaps this isn’t helped by the marketing. Those in search of the monstrous cabin in the woods movie suggested by the poster won’t find it here.
In the smaller moments, however, Sator shows real promise. Scenes in Adam’s family home, taking on a naturalistic, home-video feel, help ground the more surreal elements. Here, staged dialogue is intercut with footage of the director’s real-life grandmother (she plays Adam’s “Nani” in the film), and these exchanges add real sweetness and sincerity to a story which otherwise risks losing itself in metaphor and visual imagery. It’s a shame that the story doesn’t include more of these scenes; they provide some much-needed emotional anchorage which is unfortunately side-lined in favour of the impermeable Adam, who spends far longer eating tinned fish and looking morose than he does developing into an interesting protagonist.
Ultimately, the essence of this review can be seen in the film’s final credits. Eschewing a standard typeface, they are instead scrawled in white over a black background in what is, presumably, the director’s hand. It’s a neat idea: a continuation of the tone from the film, a call back to the mysterious clawed scribe from its atmospheric opening, and a charming indication of the movie’s homemade feel. It’s also largely illegible. Jordan Graham is clearly a dedicated filmmaker—with the right collaborators there might be room for him even within the horror renaissance of recent years. As a debut feature and labour of love, Sator has much to admire. As an entertaining horror flick, the beast within may be missing a few teeth.
Sator will available on digital download from 15 February and DVD from 22 February.
Words by James Harvey
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