Amazon Prime Video finally premieres in Spain the horror film ‘Sator’, a small sensation at specialized festivals that has been gaining a cult character on alternative channels and forums, in the style of the ‘Skinamarink’ phenomenon, but without reaching have that range. However, what really makes the film different from that and other small-budget films is its history in the background, which makes it essential to appreciate it in all its dimension.
When the director found his grandmother’s notebooks describing an evil entity that contacted him, he discovered a taboo subject in his family, but he recorded her talking about her and from there he made a feature film about a man and a cabin, with a premise which boils down to maybe there is something in the forest, or not, but what at the same time it works as a meta-documentary, since the whole story stems from one of the co-stars of the film, the aforementioned grandmother of the director.
Understanding the backstory behind its creation is essential to assimilating what it became. a project that filmmaker Jordan Graham initially envisioned as a traditional horror film. In 2013, after trying to do crowdfunding and looking everywhere for funds, one day a friend told him that he would lend him $20,000, half of the budget, in exchange for a percentage of profits. He pooled his savings from recording weddings and was asking for gifts and favors from relatives and acquaintances who were willing to collaborate. Graham built his film by taking on the duties of director, writer, producer, cinematographer, editor, and about a dozen other credits.
An unusual docufiction exercise
On the tenth day of the 120 days of filming, distributed over seven years, Graham decided to use her grandmother June Peterson’s house as the location, and it occurred to her that she could make a brief cameo appearance in a scene with one of her childhood friends, actor Michael Daniel. The dementia-stricken grandmother was confused by the lights and thought the actor was her grandson, so in the middle of the action the old lady started talking about the voices that used to speak to her through something she called “automatic writing.” .
The woman told him a personal story about Sator, a supernatural spirit that had been tormenting his head since 1968. A revelation that led his grandson to dig through his real family history in which he learned of vague references to Ouija boards and séances. Inadvertently, Graham began to rewire the film for him. He went on to have the small cast of her improvise with her grandmother and everything she said about the entity, incorporating her words into the footage.
He would often take breaks, even taking up to a week off to figure out how to reshape the story or re-edit the material. Without a fixed schedule, she was able to adjust his ideas with Peterson’s improvisational scenes. But while working on the film’s sound design, the elderly woman’s dementia made it too dangerous for her to be home alone and she was sent to a nursing home, so the director went to help her family clean up the house, and while going through the closet he found two boxes in which were his automatic writing pads that his family thought they had burned.
June’s sad story
In all, there was a diary of nearly a thousand pages documenting the woman’s entire journey with Sator and the enormous impact it had on her life. The evocation that the character talks about in the film is not an invented legend, but is actually mentioned and described as a being that she always talked about, something she never wanted to talk about in his family. Apparently, the voices had been a constant presence in their lineage, in a tradition worthy of the terrors of ‘Hereditary’ (2018).
First it was his great-great-grandmother who ended up in a psychiatric hospitalThen, when June was just four years old, her mother took her for a drive one stormy night along the coast, steering the car over the edge of the cliff, ready to kill herself to end her suffering. Although hearing her daughter cry she decided not to launch herself, some time after her voices became unbearable and she shot herself in the mouth. In 1968, her grandmother turned 40 and invoked beings with initials like FOJ, GEK. AIK, ANN, QXS, who would stand at her bedroom door at night, watching her while she slept.
But the leader of all of them was Sator, with whom the woman fell in love and had something similar to “spiritual relations”. The entity made him switch the Ouija board to communicate with him through automatic writing. When her children went to bed, she would sit in an armchair with a glass of gin, stare into space, and let Sator “talk” through her, scribbling her or the girls’ voices. other voices, changing her letter with each person who communicated using her as an emissarylike the personalities of the movie ‘Session 9’.
She wrote left-handed, or vice versa, and sometimes sat up all night scribbling. Sometimes her voices argued with each other, which made her get lost if she went by car, and after getting him into some trouble, he also ended up in a mental hospital. Much of the writing appears in the film’s opening and overprinted in the credits, and the scenes of the old woman talking about Sator were before her insanity took full hold. In her later years, her grandson became more attached to her family, and tried to immortalize her with respect, but she never got to see her role.
deep in the woods
This real mythology is transformed into an awareness of the paranormal reflected in the film’s grandson, Adam (Gabriel Nicholson), the man of the woods, whose relationship with the voices in his head is revealing a terrible reality, imperfectly fitted details of a family bruised to her core. The film alternates its linear timeline with memories, represented with a change in aspect ratio and a black and white palette, superimposed letters and even Real old family recordings that create a hair-raising hybrid of fact and fiction.
‘Sator’ offers a lot to digest for those who have the courage to venture back into the forest to see it again. because he achieves change scares for a spooky atmosphere, an experience full of layers, noises and textures that continue to resonate in the head after finishing. It’s one of those mumblecore-inherited terrors, with echoes of ‘The witch‘ (2015) and a mythology related to ‘The Blair Witch Project‘ (1999), a cousin of the latter in how it crosses the limits of the independent, since in addition to accumulating credits, Graham applied a spirit do it yourself impossible in the project.
In his years of production, the director did everything to stretch his budget. He built the cabin in the film himself with about $1,500 and donated materials, injuring his sternum hauling rocks from the river to build the fireplace, and for more than a year he learned post-production, grading and music to elaborate his careful sound dimension. The result leaves some pictures that could open any A24 movie, despite the fact that it is something that is more suited to the long tradition of regional horror in the United States. Its careful atmosphere manages to introduce us fully into its universe of wood, darkness, and nocturnal sounds that make it akin to the telluric terrors of the also minimalist and chilling ‘Across the river’ (2013), which also described the experience of a man alone in nature.
Mental illness and supernatural horror
But the film never quite gets into the nature of the demon that gives it its title. The director has stated that he would like to shoot the complete story of him taken from the notebooks in another project, but as shown in ‘Sator’ it is a creature of nature not unlike the Wendigo. An ancient demon with abilities to control minds, possess bodies, and influence the laws of physics who could very well star in an Algernon Blackwood story.
The word Sator comes from the square Sator, an ancient grouping of five words Sator, Arepo, Tenet, Opera and Rotas which, when placed on top of each other, form the same words in either direction. Its first reference is the excavation in Pompeii in 1925, but later it has been found in Greece, Sweden, Syria or England. It has been referenced in popular culture, from an old Irish folk tale to Christopher Nolan’s ‘Tenet’, always associated with an endless cycle.
And this cyclical idea is transmitted to ‘Sator’ as something has haunted this family for generations and always repeats itself. We see a corporeal entity, but functions as a metaphor for the effect of mental illness about the protagonist and his family. His condition haunts him and becomes more and more uncontrollable, until the terrifying final shot suggests that he has surrendered to his fate, that he has finally joined his family. Unlike other dementia horror movies, such as ‘Deborah Logan’s possession‘ (2014), or ‘Relic’ (2020), in Graham’s film there are no clear answers.
There is no linear narration, nor expository clarity, its concepts appear to connect the dots intuitively, so it is not a film for everyone, but offers a slow-burn horror impossible to find in major Hollywood productions. In any case, the family secrets that the director discovered while investigating to make it are terrifying enough by themselves and the proposal is the point of connection between the works of witchcraft that emerged under the protection of Robert Eggers, such as ‘Hagazussa’ (2017) or ‘ November’ (2018), the earthquake of ‘Hereditary’ and what the new indie horror made with minimal means of Kyle Edward Ball, Robbie Banfitch or Dutch Marich.
The Wendigo’s Legacy
He shares a certain experimental spirit with them since, in addition to a never fully defined plot, his approach to the family enigma inside and outside the film creates a project close to hybrid performance. Unlike these, however, ‘Sator’ is a work that can attract by its background, a story that can be completed outside of the film —the director delved into his grandmother’s story in some interviews—, which is inseparable from its particular visual aspect and atmosphere.
Although could be included in the lineage of works inspired by the legend of the Wendigo, with the same psychological focus as pieces like ‘Wendigo’ (2001) and the loneliness of forests that harbor ancestral evils following a tradition that goes from ‘A Warning to the Curious’ (1972) to ‘Without Name’ (2016), it also falls within a trend of cursed relatives, possessed elders and disease that would make a perfect double bill with the chilling ‘The Dark and The Wicked’ (2020).
Be that as it may, its meta-cinematic character pervades all its frames and gives it a unique character, which unfortunately will be tinged with curses due to the difficulty it ends up finding its rightful space as a result of the small distributor that was in charge of its promotion. Little by little, it has been slipping through the cracks of the streaming platforms and his name is being assimilated as a little cult piece of unusual horror docufiction.