SATOR isn’t a film that’s going to appeal to every horror fan
I love a good horror movie, and those that advertise some sort of grounding in reality are extra spine-tingling to me. I understand the weaving of horror tropes with mental illness that Sator portrays, but much like 2016’s The VVitch, Sator isn’t a film that’s going to appeal to every horror fan.
Director Jordan Graham basically became a one-man band for the film, producing, writing, directing, composing, editing and filming the 85-minute spectacle. Interweaving “found footage” with artistic cinematography, Graham expertly sets the mood for the film by focusing on instilling a sense of dread in the viewer. The film is told primarily through flashbacks, something I think would have hit audiences differently if the film had been released seven years ago. Many scenes were filmed in tight, enclosed spaces, and my hat goes off to Graham for making the viewer get a claustrophobic feeling to increase the suspense.
But one thing that I personally hate with horror films that Sator uses throughout is a dark cinematography. Viewers have been bombarded with unnecessarily dark footage for so long at this point that it’s becoming cliché and boring. We get it, things go bump in the night, but directors need to rely on actual plot lines instead of creative filming techniques that really do not contribute to the storyline besides giving viewers the occasional jump scare.
Sator chiefly follows Adam (Gabriel Nicholson) in what appears to be the Alaskan wilderness along with the rest of his family, his grandmother, Nani (June Peterson), his brother, Pete (Michael Daniel), and sister, Evie (Rachel Johnson), while they all battle a demon hell-bent on terrorizing them called Sator. Sator has supposedly followed the family for generations to find worthy souls. Interwoven throughout is the very real possibility of mental illness and hysteria.
While the basic plotline is interesting, if not rather cliché, there are a number of holes that never get filled. While I’m a fan of the intentionally vague for viewers to come to their own conclusions, some plot points feel like they were simply passed over due to Graham completing almost every aspect of the film’s creation. This doesn’t mean Graham doesn’t direct the film well, he certainly does, but the film’s screenplay likely needed another set of eyes.
The film also feels rather stagnant and stale, even though it’s based on Peterson’s real-life experiences with an entity the family has deemed Sator. If it had come out in 2013, the year it first went into production, it likely would have felt as innovative as Graham intended. The plot feels like an unsubtle mixture of Paranormal Activity and Insidious to create an art-house horror film. Graham uses Peterson’s actual automatic writings, a process covered in Insidious, to drive the film’s storyline, but again, viewers are seeing nothing new on screen.
Finally, Graham plays around with themes of mental illness, but it comes across as a little tone-deaf. Nani’s mental health is never fully examined and the viewer leaves feeling like 99% of the family’s issues are caused by extreme isolation. Personally, I’m tired of mental illness continuously being used in horror films as a fall back bogeyman.
ACTING | CHARACTERS | DIALOGUE:
Sator is probably the strongest character in the film, although we don’t fully know what it looks like, with a complex story development based in familial legend. We all have family lore; although, I don’t think many people have a multi-generational demon wearing an antelope skull chilling in their living room. Peterson is a rather complex individual to examine. I honestly don’t know how much is the actual her and how much is the character, and the viewer truly does leave wondering if she’s receiving real-life mental health support.
Pete, Evie and Adam aren’t overly likable, but I don’t think they’re supposed to be. It’s not at the point where you’re wishing bad things upon them, but they’re just kind of existing in a world led by a mentally ill matriarch. The actors deliver good performances, but there’s not much there to expand on. Their dialogue feels cliché, but I don’t think it’s meant to be anything else.
VISUAL EFFECTS | MAKEUP | DESIGN:
This is one of the strongest points of the film. The makeup is outstanding, especially in the latter half of the film, and the use of practical effects is expertly executed. What really makes the film standout is the set design, from its heavy use of fire to provide a good deal of the lighting to the house that conveys a multitude of feelings ranging from happiness to despair, the set design makes up for a rather weak plotline.
MUSIC | SCORE | SOUND DESIGN:
The music sets the tone the film is trying to convey, and never really brings the viewer out of the film; however, the sound design leaves much to be desired. It’s one of those horror films best viewed with surround sound in the theatre, with constant jumps from near whispering to loud screaming. The last 30 minutes of the film tend to get the sound right, but you’ll constantly have to turn your television volume up to know what’s going on the near hour before that.
I don’t hate the movie; however, it feels like a dated mishmash of horror tropes. The films last 20 minutes do provide a nice pay-off, but you have to sit through an hour to get to it. While the slow burn horror film can be an interesting genre, Sator isn’t giving viewers something they haven’t seen before. Watch it if you’re looking for a decent, if not original, horror film, but don’t expect to have your mind blown.