Sometimes stories simply fall into your lap: no planning, happy accidents, or a sheer twist of fate. When told, such stories might allow a filmmaker, writer or creative to confidently put out that one piece of work and call it a day, knowing that they successfully managed to find their Holy Grail that would come to define anything they worked on after. Jordan Graham’s second feature Sator is such a film. This folk horror interwoven with a personal touch epitomises the essence and spirit of indie horror filmmaking.
Graham’s success falls here into the ‘happy accident’ category. Originally penned as a different script, Graham was intending to use his grandmother in a cameo role, but when filming started she began to tell tales of a supernatural spirit named Sator, and how he has followed her throughout her life. Uncovering her actual diaries full of dealings with the entity, Graham pivoted to telling this richer, more authentic story. He acted as a one-man band over the course of seven years where he directed, wrote, produced, shot, edited and scored the film.
Grandmother June Petersen, having now gained a starring role, becomes the focus and absolute heart of the story. The film centres itself on two brothers Pete (Michael Daniel) and Adam (Gabriel Nicholson), dwelling in a picturesque forest and carving out a simple life in a wooden cabin. Adam’s days are particularly mundane, but his life begins to unravel when he fears a sinister presence around the cabin, seeping into every corner of his life. A real folklore vision of bones and fur, Sator moves quietly around the life of the brothers, walking through rooms with a level of aggression so minimal, its actually frightening in its simplicity. So beware, if you came for scary monsters and a jump scare a minute, you won’t find it here.
Sator dips between these full-colour scenes that are filled with beautiful landscape footage and Sator’s physical presence, and the intimate— almost intruding, black and white grainy film scenes of grandmother Nani (June Petersen). The majority of these scenes are clearly left to roll while Petersen dredges ghouls and memories from her inner self, scrawling on notepads and recalling fondly the presence that has been her ‘guardian’ over the years. Adam and Pete both make appearances, comforting Nani and engaging with her in a relaxed environment. Nani’s often forgetful memory of who the boys are and when they last saw her leads the film down a road that faces off between the possibilities of a supernatural world and the very real psychological effects of ageing.
There seems to be a quiet boom in horror that is focusing on the mental decline that might come with ageing, specifically in women, so it is even more of a welcome addition here that Graham has decided to face his own family history and turn the camera onto his own blood relative. Petersen fetches a real warmth to the role of Nani that is unmatched by the recent depictions of Alzheimer’s and old-age mental illness that horror has offered us in the last few years with films like Relic and The Vigil. Shockingly so, is the realisation that Petersen herself is by far the scariest thing that Graham’s film has to offer; how that must feel as a filmmaker is quite incomprehensible.
Sator is a labour of love to the indie filmmaking process and to the importance of recording family histories, however difficult they might be to process. Graham’s film is impressive in its utilisation of its minimal budget, and the real hands-on approach he has to his filmmaking. This is a slow-burn in every sense of the word, choosing to build atmosphere through its two cinematic styles. The turnaround of Graham’s original script idea truly allowed the stars to align for his sophomore film, but this deeply personal tale of horror might only come around once in a lifetime— it’ll be interesting to see how his future work handles the pressure.
Sator is available on VOD in the UK and USA now. It is available on DVD in the UK from 22nd February
by Chloe Leeson
Chloë (she/her) is the founder of SQ. She is a costume designer and trainee teacher living in the North East of England. She thrives watching 90s Harmony Korine Letterman interviews and bad horror movies. Her favourite films are Into The Wild, Lords of Dogtown, Green Room and Pan’s Labyrinth. Find her on Letterboxd here.