'Sator' Review: A Creepy, Dread-Filled Movie About The Horrors Of The Human Mind [Fantasia Film Festival 2019]

Those of you cast under Hagazussa's spell and blown away by The Wind, prepare yourselves for Jordan Graham's Sator. Think Krisha meets The Blair Witch with some "gang-gang supernatural cultishness" stirred in. Graham writes, edits, gaffs, scores, produces – he does everything short of acting, no exaggeration. When you nurture artistry so personal, it's hard to let control go. As Netflix Originals have proven, sometimes boundless auteurism grants filmmakers too much power. Creators cannot separate themselves from their art, killing no darlings, but that's not an issue here. Slow as sap dripping from a maple tap, maximum fuck-you-up-edness as only embittered family dysfunction can permit.Gabriel Nicholson stars as Adam, a woodland loner whose favorite hobby is checking "Deer Cam" footage each night – searching for evidence of some sort. He hunts by day and entertains sporadic sibling visits, but Adam's hours are mostly spent chasing an undefined entity: "Sator." His grandmother Nani (June Peterson, who the film is dedicated unto) speaks of Sator as a watchful caretaker. If only this naivety were true. The closer Gabriel gets to Sator, the more this entity's toxic malevolence spreads. If Adam's not careful, his lonesome lifestyle could be invaded by Sator – a fate he dare not encourage.Allow me to clarify my "The Blair Witch" comparison, as this is a reference to aesthetic choice. Not only does Graham's framing flip from murky colored widescreen shots to flashback black-and-white square-screens, but first-person camera angles draw us into Adam's home video playbacks. Perspective frequently shifts, in a disorienting but pointed attempt to invite us into Adam's shaken instability. Brother Pete (Michael Daniel) reveals talk of deteriorating mental capacities and his mother's obsession with unholy scriptures, which comes out during otherwise unassuming family get-togethers. Adam's current-day encounters with "Sator" are of intrusive haunts, but monochromatic callbacks revert to profound psychological tortures between a broken family.The film's fractured timeline may befuddle more than reveal truths, but it's again part of this overwhelming illusion of grief, paranoia, and isolation. Is Sator real? Whether or not, the Sator we encounter torments Adam daily and nightly in the confines of darkened "cabin in the woods" horror. Never through cheap jumps, instead fixating cameras on shadowed gaps between trees or thumping footsteps outside Adam's creaky bedroom door. Sator's slow-burn takes its goshdarn time, but thrives on pagan imagery of flickering candles and "imaginary" deities either conjured by the mind or summoned from below. Animal skull headdresses, long linen robes, blurry surveillance feeds and all.The way Sator soaks itself in tainted apprehension is a disarming achievement in horror storytelling. Graham's ability to generate unrest while creeping forward sans haste never feigns linear narration, happy to plop viewers into Adam's morose hellscape without spelling realities word for word. Some may hate this brand of filmmaking, but others will relish how disturbing every minute of footage becomes. Whether it's Adam's frantic dashes between forest treelines in the dead of night, or Sator's shrouded visitations, or Nani's sentimental affection towards Sator, Graham ensures that sanity remains in question. You can feel the aches and pains of such personal themes, represented through Adam's arthouse spiral downward set to the tune of taped black hymnal chatter.Nicholson's performance is primarily without dialogue, as Adam's "journey" progresses through torments of a corrupted mind. Family members enter frame for brief periods, Nani especially when evoking Sator's name, but Adam's internal struggles are handled through external madness. Narration resembles recorded ramblings of scribbled phrases, keying into Adam's contemptuous familial relationships. Sequences favor nature's harrowing quietness, obsessions with grainy footage, and home invasion tactics of a "spirit" spoken of but not seen by all. Death and anguish are such powerful forces, which Graham uses to push Adam past a brink of discomfort sustained for 80ish minutes of one man's answerless purgatory.All will not appreciate Sator, but those who praise horror flavors such as The Blackcoat's Daughter and Sauna will worship Jordan Graham's rumination on bloodline hardships. Buring a slow wick towards a vile end, the film's calling card becomes dreadful sorrow. "Do it yourself" movies shouldn't feel this polished, as Graham wears almost every production hat yet pulls off what could pass as a fully-loaded studio feature. There's a lot to love here; searing heretic cinematography included, as long as you're a fan of horror flicks that *love* taking their damn time. It's emotionally invasive, disturbing, and brutally unforgiving once Sator's presence takes hold. A genre experience the reminds of The Eyes Of My Mother, emphasized by visual provocation despite speaking the softest of horror notes. There's no place scarier than the human mind, after all./Film Rating: 8 out of 10